THE PAIN OF REMEMBERING THE START OF ONE OF AFRICA’S MOST IGNORED GENOCIDES
Chief Mathema and Chief Fuyane unveiling a monument to the fallen dead during Gukuruhundi at Bhalagwe in southern Matabeleland in 2021. The Emmerson Mnangagwa government and media cronies attached to the ruling party say no-one remembers what happened and that the massacre was just ‘a moment of madness.’ Some massacre. Some moment.Some madness.
IT’S FORTY YEARS since Robert Mugabe let loose his North Korean-trained Five Brigade in different parts of Zimbabwe, a genocide known as Gukuruhundi. How many civilian men, women and children died in the Midlands and Matabeleland between 1983-1987 might never be known. Possibly as many as 50,000. What was going on in freshly independent Zimbabwe in 1983 was largely ignored. Few foreign-based reporters had the courage to write about what little they knew. But one young Zimbabwean, Brendan Seery, was active and courageous. He spoke out and Mugabe’s media stooges branded him as ‘an enemy of the people.’ – Editor
MEMORIES, DREAMS, REFLECTIONS: THE PAIN OF REMEMBERING GUKURUHUNDI
Author Brendan Seery . . .
. . . a reporter of courage and integrity
by Brendan Seery
It’s amazing how time smooths over the unpleasant cracks in your memory. Until I opened the musty yellowing clipping files of my work from 1983, I had forgotten how the pungent sweet smell of death sticks in the back of your throat, how it settles in the membranes of your nose. And how no matter how many beers you drink or how many showers you have, it still lingers. I had found the bodies by smell. Six young men, coiled together, probably in indescribable terror in their last seconds as AK-47 bullets ripped into them from close range.
I had been told that I would find them just off the main Bulawayo-Plumtree road in the Zimbabwean province of Matabeleland. I had rough directions starting from a kilometre marker on the road. But still it took some time – time I didn’t have, because my car was parked in full view on the side of the road. Not a desirable position if the soldiers returned. Not difficult to find a young white man in jeans and T-shirt in the scrubby bush. Not difficult to put a bullet into in his brain and get rid of a witness.
With the battered office Pentax camera, I squeezed off a few frames. Then I vomited. Half-digested cheese omelette, bacon and toast meet reality. Later, the same day, the same week, I can’t remember – I found another execution site. How many died there was difficult to tell, because the bodies had been piled up, set alight and burnt to ashes. But bones require immense heat to destroy, so one ghostly white femur lay, half sticking up.
For weeks in the early months of 1983, I traversed Matabeleland, recording ever more terrifying tales of the destruction wrought by Robert Mugabe’s North Korean-trained Five Brigade. Mugabe had unleashed the troops on the province – stronghold of his political enemy, Joshua Nkomo – late in the previous year. The unit was known by its Shona name Gukuruhundi, which means “the wind which blows away the chaff before the rains.”
Clearly, Mugabe regarded the Ndebele people as just such chaff.
Five Brigade was not a conventional military force, but more of a killing machine. Reports of the number of people who died go as ahigh as 20,000. Apart from the bodies, I saw burnt huts, and people with stab, hack and bullet wounds. I spoke to women who had seen their husbands bayoneted in front of them, to old men who hid under beds when they heard the noise of our cars because they thought it was the soldiers returning; the shy, bruised girls who spoke in a quiet, roundabout way through gentle translators about being gang-raped by drunken soldiers. I didn’t speak to many young men; most were either dead or had fled to Botswana or South Africa.
Recruits to Five Brigade cracking bricks with their bare hands at a Harare Agricultural Show in 1982
Re-reading the files, I was amazed by what I had forgotten – or buried away. (After my sister reminded me, I relived my brief detention at the police station in Gwanda, for illegally interviewing Joshua Nkomo on one of his farms which had been seized by the government.) I was put briefly in a cage for captured “dissidents” (before the friendly station commander invited me to share some strong Tanganda tea with him prior to letting me go) but had other things on my mind in 1983, as an intense four-year relationship with a woman ended badly.
I’ve long since healed but Matabeleland still grieves.
What was launched upon the province’s unfortunate people has since been replicated in various ways on the rest of the people of that long-suffering country.
And now, as I see stories of people flooding across the border, I share the pain of these people, my people (I was born in Zimbabwe and will always be, at heart, a Zimbabwean).
Please, please, please South Africans, show these poor people some sympathy and dignity if you come across them.
In 1983 Brendan Seery worked in Harare as a Zimbabwe government-accredited reporter with the South African Argus African News Service (AANS).