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Zimbabwe: 1980s Atrocities Carefully Planned


The Gukurahundi genocide, in which an estimated 20 000 Zimbabwean citizens were killed by a crack parallel army unit, the Fifth Brigade, in the early 1980s, was carefully planned, well before dissident fighters surfaced in the Matabeleland and Midlands regions, investigations have shown.

Former president Robert Mugabe — then prime minister in the newly independent country — was the architect of the atrocities.

His successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa — who at the time served in Mugabe’s office as minister of state for security — was the enforcer-in-chief. There were also executioners in the Fifth Brigade.

Months after taking office in 1980, Mugabe went to Pyongyang in North Korea to meet Kim Il-sung and signed a deal on military training. After that he formed the Fifth Brigade in 1981 following their drills in Nyanga from August 1981 to June 1982. He then deployed the troops in January 1983, which went on to commit mass killings.

However, over the decades, none of the perpetrators have owned up to the atrocities and the little that Mugabe has said since the 1980s has been a mixture of mystification and denial. The closest he has come to admitting official responsibility was after the death of Zapu leader Joshua Nkomo in 1999 when he described the early 1980s as a “moment of madness” — an ambivalent statement not since repeated.

In the wake of the Mnangagwa government’s decision to open the Pandora’s Box over which Mugabe had maintained a tight lid, critics have come out guns blazing, saying unless there is a truth-telling process, justice and personal criminal accountability on the part of perpetrators, his appeasement drive would ultimately fail.

Asked if senior government officials at the time, accused of being architects of the atrocities are ready to speak about what really happened during Gukurahundi in an interview with our sister paper The Standard at the weekend, presidential spokesperson George Charamba said there was no question of liability since the Gukurahundi was a war.

“Guns were shooting from both sides, which is why it was a conflict, you don’t have a one-sided conflict, which means culpability doesn’t just rest on one side. The only difference is that others were in government while others were an insurgency. By its very nature, insurgency dissolves, but governments don’t dissolve, therefore, the issue of culpability, truth or accountability is shared,” he said, blaming apartheid South Africa for fomenting unrest as part of its wide programme to destabilise the southern African region through funding of dissidents and armed bandits.

However, information at hand shows Mugabe signed secret deals with Apartheid leaders to manage their relations and the Gukurahundi project. Details also show that one of the first foreign trips Mugabe made soon after taking the oath of office as prime minister in 1980 was to North Korea, where he signed a military pact with the hermit nation’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung in the same year as he prepared his killing machine, which was to be unleashed in 1983. This was well before there were dissidents.

Under the pact, Mugabe agreed with Kim Il-sung that Pyongyang would train a wing of Zimbabwe’s army, known as the Fifth Brigade, which would be under the direct control of Mugabe himself as he sought to consolidate and maintain power.

The following year in 1981, a total of 106 Korean military trainers arrived in the country to set up the military wing and were lodged at Jameson Hotel in Harare at government’s expense. This was long before the emergence of either the dissidents or agent provocateurs sponsored by South Africa known as Super Zapu.

This, according to some narratives, implies that the mass killings were systematically planned by Mugabe for the specific purpose of annihilating Nkomo and Zapu.

According to a story by a government-controlled news agency, New Ziana, the North Koreans arrived in the country in August 1981 and had their bills footed by government. The story was published in the Herald issue of September 17, 1981.

“The hotel and entertainment bill for the 106 Korean military advisors who arrived last month to help the Ministry of Defence establish the Fifth Brigade came to $12 983,17,” the Minister of State in Prime Minister’s Office told the House of Assembly yesterday.

“The minister was answering Mr Donald Goddard (RF) Lundi during private members’ question time. Mr Goddard noted in his question, asking for details of the Koreans’ stay, that they were accommodated at Salisbury’s Jameson Hotel.

“Mr Mnangagwa did not specify how long the advisors stayed at the hotel. The minister also said he understood a further account for an as yet unspecified amount was expected for the advisors’ transit accommodation during the weekend of September 11 (1981),” the story reads.

Dissidents, who were ill-equipped former Zipra fighters, deserted the new army around 1981-1983 following tensions in the military demobilisation camps and integration, most notably after Entumbane in Bulawayo and Hwedza clashes between former Zanla and Zipra fighters. They also clashed in places like Ntabazinduna, Glenville and Connemara.

Mugabe set up the Dumbutshena Commission to investigate the clashes. He did not make the report public, just the Chihambakwe Commission report on Gukurahundi.

In his 1983 autobiography, Nkomo says he persistently asked Mugabe to explain the purpose of the Fifth Brigade — “a partisan military force” — which he was including in official government meetings and in one such meeting, Mugabe retorted: “(It is being put in place) to deal with people like you!”

After the Entumbane and other clashes, which saw the about 400 people dying, some of the ex-Zipra fighters deserted the camps and began roaming the forests and villages.

Apartheid South Africa then took advantage of the uprisings to sponsor separate groups which morphed into dissidents, according to a report by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe titled Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace: Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands 1980 to 1988.

“We had information of South African military assistance to the dissidents (Super Zapu) in Matabeleland, South Africans were not shy about issuing weapons either. They gave former Zipra guerillas (not Zipra, but dissidents) rockets, 60mm mortars, RPD machine guns with thousands of ammunition enough to carry on a small war, which they did,” the report reads.

These started killing white farmers and tourists in the region. During this period, South Africa was involved in many secret operations in southern Africa, including in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, where they sponsored Renamo, as well as in Angola and Namibia.

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