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Politicide in Zimbabwe: The difficult path to healing

Martina Schwikowski
December 5, 2020

Mass graves keep cropping up in Zimbabwe. The killings of civilians date back years, but wounds remain. The hurdle to healing is the government, experts say.

Simbabwe Massaker
Image: Zinyange Auntony/AFP/Getty Images

The trauma persists — even in the third generation.

"If mournings and its rituals fail, it doesn't simply go away," Jenni Williams, a human rights activsit in Bulawayo in southwestern Zimbabwe told DW.

"For victims of massacres and their relatives here, there are neither death nor birth certificates," she says. "Many lives stand practically still."

But, for now, forgiving these crimes committed against thousands of people almost 40 years ago is a near-impossibility.

"The government must first admit that it sent soldiers to Matabeleland to kill," says Williams. 

A statue of Joshua Nkomo in Bulawayo
Joshua Nkomo, Zimbabwe African People's Union leader from 1961 to 1987Image: Zinyange Auntony/AFP/Getty Images

Wounds still raw

"Gukurahundi" raged in the hills and savannas around the city of Bulawayo in the mid-1980s.

The word is derived from the language of the Shona people in northern Zimbabwe. In English, it loosely translates to "the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains." But it's now used to identify a series of massacres of the Ndebele people in the south.

In 1983, then-prime minister and future president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, was the leader of leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). He deployed the infamous Fifth Brigade to Matabeleland, with the pretext of taking action against dissidents. They were followers of his main political opponent, the African People's Union of Zimbabwe (ZAPU) leader Joshua Nkomo, a Ndebele.

Robert Mugabe
Robert Mugabe, pictured here in 1984, was highly regarded abroad before his reputation as a nefarious leader emergedImage: Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

Bodies concealed in mineshafts

The massacre is now considered to be one of the darkest times in the history of the country after independence in 1980 — more than 20,000 lives are estimated to have been lost.

Multiple mass graves were discovered in the years of violence which followed. Under the control of Mugabe's party, the military killed more than 200 people during a violent takeover of diamond fields in the Marange district in late 2008. Three years later, in 2011, some 1,000 bodies were discovered in an old mineshaft at Mount Darwin, 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of the capital, Harare. 

Read more: In Zimbabwe, dissent can lead to disappearances and torture

The government claimed the bodies were those of fighters from the liberation struggle in the 1970s. But the opposition suspects that many were actually their supporters who were abducted during the state's campaign of terror, beginning in 2000, directed against the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). 

Emmerson Mnangagwa lighting Zimbabwe's Eternal Flame of Freedom
President Emmerson Mnangagwa was a security minister at the time of "Gukurahundi" Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Njikizana

The government is the hurdle

Filmmaker Zenzele Ndebele has been researching the Matabeleland massacre for many years. He believes the current government still hasn't done enough to atone for the atrocities. 

"The new government, which came in 2017 led by Emmerson Mnangagwa, had made lot of promises to try and heal the wounds," Ndebele told DW. "But I think they are more covering up what happened than healing."

Mnangagwa, who succeeded Mugabe, was one of the security ministers at the time of "Gukurahundi." In 2018, he set up a Peace and Reconciliation Commission to deal with earlier human rights violations.

"The commission has achieved little, it is underfunded," Ndebele says.

Read more: Zimbabwe celebrates 40 years of independence

However, activist Jenni Williams is convinced that negotiations with Mnangagwa are on the right path.

"The president came to Bulawayo and listened to us," she says. "He also promised a water project along the Zambezi river for our dry region."

Williams currently works with the Matabeleland Collective, which is made up of civil society groups. A social dialogue, which includes the village elders, has now begun. They discuss the sensitive process of exhuming, identifying and burying dead relatives with dignity.

They're demanding that the government should bring the truth to light. But, Williams admits, "progress is slow."

Isaiah Nkomo
Isaiah Nkomo does not know where his brother Simimba was buried, 38 years after the massacreImage: Jerome Delay/AP Photo/picture alliance

Dubious exhumation methods

Zimbabwe's history of massacres, political violence and diamond conflicts means there are secret mass graves to be found all over the country.

Keith Silika is a Zimbabwean forensic archaeologist at Staffordshire University in Britain and specializes in mass graves. He has interviewed more than 60 witnesses of the masacre. 

"It would be to the president's advantage to provide an excuse for his actions," Silika told DW. 

Silika is critical of the law on which the Peace and Reconciliation Commission is based. It is only five pages long. The wishes of families of the victims are not included. And, dubious methods are used in the exhumation of remains, for example in Mashonaland.

"There has been a group called Fallen Heroes Trust that is aligned to the ruling party," says Silika. "These people are not trained in forensic archaelogy or forensic anthropology. There is no accountability, there is no paper trail...These issues are contributing to the covering up of war crimes."

Read more: Zimbabwe compensates white farmers with billions

An abandoned building
The Sitezi military camp where soldiers involved in Operation "Gukurahundi" at Matabeleland Image: Jerome Delay/AP Photo/picture alliance

Victim fatigue hampers protests

Whenever a new mass grave is found, there is rarely a big outcry from the public, says Silika.

"There is fatigue, there's a lack of resources, and there is also fear still embedded in Zimbabwean society," he says. "We do have decent human rights groups who are campaigning for change in the legislation and also for the government to address fully the atrocities."

Silika himself joined the Zimbabwean police force in 1983. Some of his trainers were involved in Operation Gukurahundi. But he was kept in the dark. 

"I had no idea of the extent of the violence." he says. "It was only in 2005 when I joined the British police service that I had access to accurate information."

The shock of decades of systematic violence in his home country prompted him to study criminology. His investigations should contribute to justice: "I want to help relatives bury their dead and end their trauma."

Zimbabwe FM Sibusiso Moyo on Conflict Zone

Cai Nebe contributed to this article.

This article was adapted from German by Benita van Eyssen