Press "Enter" to skip to content

Zimbabwe Violence reminiscent of Gukurahundi massacres

This was a difficult contribution to make for a number of reasons. First, I am very close to the events that I am about to describe. In early 1982 to the late 1980s, Zimbabwe experienced an ugly period called Gukurahundi (a Shona word meaning, the early rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rain) in the provinces of Midlands and Matabeleland. So if you were from those areas, like I am, you would have a close relative who was killed or disappeared without a trace. Those memories are still very fresh for most of us.

Therefore, anything that resonates with that period like the current violence in rural parts of Zimbabwe invokes inexplicable emotions from us.

Secondly, I do not want to dwell much on the past, but I struggled with whether that phase was addressed properly to avoid falling into the same mistake today. I wrote this article, therefore, because I feel I have a duty to compel our leaders that we do not want to go that route ever again. Signs are clear that Zimbabwe is on the brink of a civil war, if it is not already, judging by the violence and killings. Mugabe and Tsvangirai can still save the country from going into a full-fledged conflict.

I don’t want to open a Pandora’s Box here but some historical background would be useful to raise my points. Like I stated above, for many that witnessed the brutalities of the fifth brigade in the mid 1980s, the violence that has gripped particularly rural areas arouses fresh memories. We quickly see pregnant women’s stomachs being ripped apart with bayonets, just to make sure the unborn boys are eliminated. The reasons were that boys would grow up to become dissidents, a term that under normal circumstances would have meant anyone who had deserted the national army to take up arms against the government. However this is not what the Korean trained soldiers understood by the term. They used it loosely to mean any grown up male or anyone who was seen to be sympathetic to Joshua Nkomo’s cause.

We also see fathers forced to rape their daughters in front of their wives and children; we see sons coerced to have sex with their mothers. We grudgingly see families slaughtering each other. We see fathers killing their sons; sons killing their mothers and mothers pounding their babies to death. We see communities turning against each other.

The scenes that I am describing are similar to what we see today. Communities accused by each other for being sell-outs. As a result, they were taken advantage of. During the day, soldiers would pretend to be dissidents and seek the communities’ assistance, especially with food. At night, the same ‘dissidents’ would come back as soldiers and accuse communities of feeding and harbouring dissidents. Members of the community would be asked to bring in the open the identity of those that supported dissidents. The killings would start and go on the whole night, starting with singing and ending with serious beatings. The badly beaten were not allowed to seek medical care; instead their family members would watch them dying.

If you think this is fiction, just take a trip to parts of Matabeleland and Midlands and you will meet victims of this episode who vividly explain this more than my description. Some of these victims have no ears; some have no lips; some are crippled and many still do not know where their parents, relatives and sons are. Writing from a personal experience, I know what I am talking about. It is because of this that I think some of us who experienced the harsh moments of that period must do our best to avoid civil war or anything that can drive people to kill each other randomly.

There is no doubt that the situation in most rural areas now reflects the Gukurahundi period. The nights are the worst times in the lives of the rural folks. People are assembled, usually in a school or headman’s place. They are made to sing liberation songs the whole night under the watch of soldiers. It is at these meetings that sell-outs are eliminated. I understand from a source in one of the rural areas that even in these meetings, people are given logs to ‘beat themselves’. This is exactly what used to happen — you were asked to beat yourself until ‘hopefully’ you kill yourself.

It sounds very wild; but we are in that period once again. Communities have turned against each other and are arming themselves. This is all because of MDC and Zanu-PF. It is unfortunate that people who have lived together for a long time will now become enemies simply because one is an MDC member and the other is a ZANU PF supporter. Life is supposed to be bigger than these two entities.

This brings me to the point that I have been trying to drive across in the past weeks. Zimbabwe needs more than what MDC and Zanu-PF can offer. As a matter of fact, Zimbabwe does not need the two political parties. We are where we are because of them. Both are intransigent, incorrigible and frankly unfit for purpose.

Take the case of the run-off, we frankly don’t need it. It has cost us more lives than we can take. Chances are that more people will be killed leading to the election day and more frighteningly after the election. Further, this run-off will not result in a winner. Even if Mugabe wins the count, he has lost people’s support and the region, including the continent’s trust. The recent letter by some former heads of state and other developments including Botswana’s stance on Zimbabwe, are indicative that even the regime’s allies are becoming wary about its machinations. A Mugabe win will further slide the country into more crises. And an MDC win is unfortunately a loss for Zimbabweans. In the lead up to the 27 June, it has been clear that if MDC wins, the country will be plunged into war. So, what is the point of going through this election? I posed this question in two of my previous articles. The question still stands today as we approach the election day.

It is clear that there is a stalemate even before the elections are conducted. Even the talks about a government of national unity are smacked with the same intransigence as that which characterised the aftermath of 29 March. The two political principals could have rescued Zimbabwe and formed a united government. But they did not; instead they involved themselves in grandstanding and political bickering.

Today, we are made to believe that President Mbeki and the SADC region are racing against time to install the same government of national unity to avoid the run-off. Again it is the political leaders that are unbecoming and blocking the initiative. Apparently, both Mugabe and Tsvangirai want to be president; no one wants to take the position of a prime minister. Clearly one of them has to budge; for no one will run Zimbabwe without the input of the other party. Will it be Mugabe or will it be Tsvangirai? And if neither of them budges then believe me, the country is heading for scenes reminiscent of the Gukurahundi massacres. Must we allow two people to drive the country into civil war?

It might be useful also to redefine what we mean by civil war, because in the case of Zimbabwe, communities are killing each already using spears, axes and machetes. This is civil war even if guns are not yet in use. I just wish those involved in violence could travel to warzones and see for themselves the damage that civil war can inflict on the psyche as well as the general material and infrastructural conditions of individuals.

In my last article I asked readers to be very afraid, for 27 June might be catastrophic. In this article, I am requesting people to be prepared for the worst and to find strategies to deal with the aftermath of violence. We did not address properly the Gukurahundi violence and its ghost has continued to haunt us. Very few, including those that had the capacity and the access to do so, talked openly about the atrocities at the time. The excuse given so far is that no one could because the regime, particularly Mugabe, was the darling of the international community. So many journalists today are haunted by the fact that they were complicit. In a few years time from now, we will be confronted with the same situation. How many will say they talked openly and condemned the violence? How many will stand with their consciences clean and say that they did not defend the perpetrators of violence?

For a moment, let us put aside our differences and think about the possibility of going once again over scenes reminiscent of the mid 1980s. Even worse still, let us go a few years back and imagine the war against Smith’s regime. It is clear that the violence script was written during that period. A friend of mine is about to conduct some research into the similarities among the three periods of violence in Zimbabwe: the war against Smith, the Gukurahundi massacres and the current spate of violence. I await his findings.

My point really is that it is time to take positions. We cannot continue sitting on fences. I for one would not want to witness the scenes of the mid 1980s. Our people suffered enough; and going to war is not the solution. The solution is certainly not in the bush; it is within us. If ever we are to take a journey, let it be a journey inwards and not to the bush. The bush mentality is responsible for where and what we are today.


  • Bhekinkosi Moyo is trained in political science and currently shuttles between Southern Africa and West Africa. He works for TrustAfrica-a Pan African oriented foundation that works to secure the conditions for democratic governance and equitable development. In 2007, he edited a collection of chapters: Africa in Global Power Play. He has just completed editing an 18 country book on DisEnabling the Public Sphere: Civil Society Regulation in Africa.