The 5th Brigade: Gukurahundi
Before delving into the meat of the horrors committed by the 5th Brigade, it is important to make some crucial distinctions. It is generally agreed that there were two massive operations undertaken by the government of then Prime Minister Mugabe immediately after independence. The first was a genuine attempt to rid the country of a band of dissidents who at the zenith of their reign of terror, numbered no more than 400 ex-combatants (mostly disgruntled ZIPRA fighters). For this operation, it was the 4th and 6th Brigades that were used in conjunction with various other arms of the national security apparatus including but not limited to the CIO and so forth. This operation commenced immediately after independence. The subsequent disturbances involving ex-fighters at Entumbane* were also a contributing factor in the deployment of the military in Matabeleland and parts of the Midlands just after independence.
The genesis of the second operation can be traced to about 1983 when the North Korean trained 5th Brigade, commonly known in Zimbabwean nomenclature as 5 Brigade, arrived on the scene. Public beatings, public executions, murder and torture and random detention were the order of the day under 5 Brigade. Unlike the 4th and 6th Brigades who exercised some discretion and a modicum of restraint in crushing the dissident movement, 5 Brigade, under the command of then commander of the Zimbabwean Air Force, Air Marshall Perence Shiri, were ruthless, brutal and did not differentiate between civilians and those they deemed to be dissidents. It is estimated that between 1980 and 1987 close to 20 000 civilians were killed most of them at the hands of 5 Brigade. Most of those who lost their lives were Ndebele speaking civilians.
Perhaps the Gukurahundi name ascribed to 5 Brigade should have provided tell tale signs of the modus operandi of this band of soldiers who, it must be remembered that 5 Brigade were not part of the formal structure of the army. They are said to have reported directly to the Prime Minister and were accountable only to him.
In order to comprehend the severity of the atrocities committed by 5 Brigade, some examples cited by the Catholic Commission for Justice & Peace in Zimbabwe and the Legal Resources Foundation in their report on the Gukurahundi massacres are of great importance.
Matabeleland North: Neshango Line (Next To Ningombeneshango Airstrip)
- 3 FEBRUARY 1983 – Mass beating of villagers and shooting of 2 young pregnant girls, followed by their being bayoneted open to reveal the still moving foetuses. These girls and several others had allegedly (author’s own emphasis) been raped by members of the ZNA in November of 1982. Total number of dead: 2. Total number of raped: 8. Total number of civilians beaten: 50 (6 named).
Gulakabili: (Approximately 20km South West of Pumula Mission)
- 12 FEBRUARY 1983 – Whole village abducted to the Pumula Mission area where they were beaten. Some were then forced to dig a mass grave and made to climb in before being shot. They were buried while still moving and villagers were made to dance on the grave and sing songs in praise of the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU PF.) Number of dead given as 12. One victim locked in a hut and burnt to death.
Korodziba: (West of Pumula Mission)
- FEBRUARY 1983 – 5 Brigade came to the school and took about 60 pupils aged over 14 years. They were all beaten and asked about dissidents. 20 girls were raped and ordered to have sex with some of the boys while the soldiers watched. They were beaten for three hours.
These events and hundreds, if not thousands like them, were commonplace during 5 Brigade’s reign of terror between 1983 and 1984. After isolated and sporadic instances of public outcry against the violation of ordinary citizens’ basic human rights, the Brigade was recalled and retrained. Upon their return to the field in late 1984, they utilised more subtle and sophisticated methods of torture and murder. Although the number of deaths at the hands of 5 Brigade decreased, the overarching aim of the Gukurahundi operation was, in my view, achieved. Namely, to instil an intense sense of fear in the thousands of Ndebele people. Which is why, in my view, it is extremely naïve, bordering on negligent, to dismiss the ethnic element as the primary driving force behind the violence.
What is interesting to note however, is also the fact that 5 Brigade’s deployment always coincided with the imposition of a curfew. This is true with both curfews of 1983 and 1984. Again, while the first one was direct (restricting movement after the curfew period), the consequences of the second one were more sophisticated and subtle. The second curfew was a food curfew. Perhaps the intended consequence was to starve the dissidents. In all reported incidents, there seem to have been no intention of differentiating between the dissidents and ordinary civilians. Logic dictates that by cutting off food supplies, the aim was invariably to deprive certain areas of the country of food during what was an intense drought between 1980 and 1984. It does not require the mathematical brilliance of a rocket scientist to figure out the people who were the inhabitants of those areas deprived of food.
The Legacy of 5 Brigade in Matabeleland
One of the lasting legacies of this hugely depressing period in our history is that Ndebele people strongly believe themselves to have been the target of a war not against dissidents or ZAPU and/or disenchanted ex-ZIPRA fighters, but a war to obliterate them from the history of the country of their birth.
The widespread violence, public beatings, public executions, and cruel food curfew left indelible marks on the collective consciousness and memories of Ndebele people. This collective fear has led to the pervasive feeling amongst some Ndebele people that they are but a mere afterthought in any discussion or discourse around Zimbabwe.
The only efforts by the State to address, let alone acknowledge the injustices perpetrated during this period came in the form of a four-man commission which sat in January 1984, known as the Chihambakwe Commission of Inquiry. The commission took statements in Bulawayo and despite finding hundreds of people willing to give evidence that detailed the atrocities committed by 5 Brigade between 1983 and 1984, in November 1985 then Minister of State Security, Emmerson Mnangagwa, announced that the report and findings of the commission would not be released.
Mnangagwa is now Zimbabwe’s Vice-President and is one step away from the presidency. The findings of the Chihambakwe Commission remain unpublished. This is despite promises by then Prime Minister, Robert Mugabe, in 1985 that all would be revealed. Had there been a government that showed a modicum of sympathy to the plight of the people of Matabeleland and the Midlands, what happened to them would have been declared a national tragedy many years ago. It must never be forgotten that Matabeleland and Midlands were the site of unspeakable crimes that were committed against a people whose only crime was being Ndebele.
If indeed Zimbabwe is to hold herself as a democracy, perhaps sympathy should not be one of the courtesies we should demand from a government that was elected presumably through universal adult suffrage. Should we not be asking for accountability? Should we not be asking who is responsible for all these deaths? Who is responsible for all this madness? Who will comfort the thousands of families who lost their loved ones to this senseless violence?
Who is accountable?
If the possibility for individual compensation or redress is out of the question (largely due to the Amnesty of 1988 and the Prescription Act), surely there must be the possibility of some kind of community oriented reparations that will go some way in redressing wrongs of the past.
To continue as if Gukurahundi never happened is not only unfortunate but toxic to any future attempts at building a shared national identity. How can we come up with a national identity that we all subscribe to when we deny the very occurrence of a very real and bloody period in the formative years of a country we all live in?
A denial of Gukurahundi is akin to walking with a limp from a gaping wound while all the while convincing oneself that all is well. When that wound festers and becomes septic, no amount of self-reassurance will lead to the eradication of the onset of gangrene. Similarly, until we can have an open and honest conversation about what happened in Zimbabwe between 1980 and 1987, no amount of Unity Accords and Vice Presidents of Ndebele lineage will eradicate the real and painful truth that innocent people were murdered, tortured, detained and displaced from their homes.
Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe (2008, )Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace: A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland & the Midlands, 1980 – 1988
Chinokanganwa idemo – part of the chiShona saying “Chinokanganwa idemo, chitsiga hachikanganwe,” which translates to “What forgets is the axe, the stump can never forget”
Entumbane – Township in Bulawayo
Umkhonto weSizwe – The armed wing of the African National Congress
ZANLA – Armed wing of ZANU
ZIPRA – Armed wing of ZAPU
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and the author alone and do not necessarily express or reflect the views of Conversation Zimbabwe or its contributors. Any and all assumptions made in the text of this article are not reflective of the position of Conversation Zimbabwe or any of its contributors, with the exception of the author. This article is not meant to be an accurate historical or legal rendering of the events that occurred during Gukurahundi, but a cursory summary of the events between 1980 and 1987.