A granny, probably in her 80s (the same age as my grandmother), whose five sons were killed in the Gukurahundi, became panic-stricken when she heard there was going to be an effort to compensate victims. “Please bantwabami (my children),” she cried, “please don’t tell them I’m the mother of those boys, they will finish me off.”
This is a generation whose children were killed by the Zimbabwe National Army’s 5th Brigade, many of them shot in front of them, some locked up in huts and burned alive, and some found dead in the bushes of Matabeleland. You would think many of these mothers and fathers would be baying for blood, demanding justice and eagerly awaiting compensation. But no – 37 years later, many don’t want to be known.
They are still petrified of the army and live in fear of it coming back.
This is the generation that doesn’t use the word Gukurahundi, the name given to the operation by the Zanu-PF government which left more than 20,000 civilians dead in Matabeleland. When explaining the slaughter, they do not say, “Gukurahundi killed us.” They are more explicit. They say, “Sasibulawa ngamasotsha” (it was soldiers who were killing us).
In the documentary Gukurahundi Genocide: 36 years later, by documentary filmmaker Zenzele Ndebele, a woman explained how the 5th Brigade soldiers systematically raped her and other married women. She explained that the soldiers would take them to their camps nightly, rape them, and in the mornings order them to go back home to their husbands. She must be about my mother’s age, meaning she was probably in her twenties when the Gukurahundi was unleashed upon Matabeleland. In the documentary, she says she is no longer with her husband. He probably could not stomach it all.
This is the generation that was targeted during the Gukurahundi, the youth of the time. The women were raped. The pregnant ones had their bellies slit open and foetuses ripped out of their wombs – the rationale for this being that the soldiers could not allow the birth of any dissident children.
The men, our fathers, were killed in their dozens. They were accused of being dissidents. Those that survived were “disappeared”, or taken to camps where they experienced various forms of torture. Castration was a favourite – to prevent the birth of more dissidents, apparently. The majority of male survivors of the Bhalagwe torture camp are childless. They had their testicles crushed or electrocuted during their incarceration.
There is the generation born in the ’70s, just before the Gukurahundi. This is the generation that witnessed the rapes of our mothers and the murders of our fathers. The generation of people who were too young to be seen as a serious threat to the one-party state. They were not directly targeted, but they saw it all. They saw their fathers and older brothers dragged away by soldiers, never to be seen again. They witnessed their uncles being beaten to a pulp. They survived when other children were locked up in huts and set ablaze by the Zimbabwean army. At a school in Tsholotsho, it was this generation that watched the execution of seven of their teachers.
During the Gukurahundi, soldiers generally killed indiscriminately – children, youths and the elderly were all murdered – but soldiers targeted teachers and headmasters especially. The effects this had on education in Matabeleland are still felt, 37 years later.
Then there is us. Our generation. Born during Gukurahundi. In the midst of it all. We are the generation that was spared being ripped out of our mothers’ wombs as foetuses. We are the generation that was not directly affected by Gukurahundi, but have had to live with the scars all our lives.
We are the generation that was raised by grandparents who had long since died inside. We are the generation that was raised by Gukurahundi survivors, most of them silently suffering from undiagnosed and untreated post-traumatic stress disorder. We are the generation whose parents were killed by the Zimbabwean National Army. We are the children whose mothers were raped by soldiers of the Zimbabwe National Army. Some of us are products of those rapes.
My generation is angry. We have never known love. Our parents and guardians were broken beyond repair. And with their brokenness, they broke us. Many of us are reminders of a painful past. Many of us are products of unspeakable atrocities. We are the loveless, fatherless, stateless generation.
Statelessness. The tragedy of not belonging. Of not being registered. You see, our parents died at the hands of the Zimbabwean government. To cover up their crimes, and because many were simply disappeared, their deaths were never registered. Because our parents were not awarded death certificates, we have no birth certificates. Without a birth certificate in Zimbabwe, one cannot go far with one’s education. Primary schools are lenient, but one cannot sit for Grade 7 examinations without a birth certificate. Thereby ends the educational journey of many children in Matebeleland. Grade 7.
Without education, and with no industries to employ them in Zimbabwe, the only option available to many is to migrate to South Africa to look for jobs. Sadly, to do that one needs a passport, and without a birth certificate in Zimbabwe, one cannot get a passport. The available option for many under these circumstances is illegal emigration.
“Illegal immigrants” to South African readers. Amakwerekwere. Unregistered and unrecognised in our countries of birth. Unwanted in our countries of refuge. We are the generation that can never open a bank account. We cannot take out insurance policies. Officially, we do not exist.
Because of our statelessness, our children are stateless. Like us, they will be uneducated. Like us, if they migrate, they can only be illegal migrants. The cycle is vicious.
Gukurahundi was an operation to wipe out the Matabeleland and Midlands tribe in retaliation for voting against Zanu-PF in the 1980 elections. Zanu-PF ideology is a one-party state. When they lost the Matabeleland vote to the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), they decided to eliminate the ZAPU support base, resulting in a genocide that left 20,000 civilians dead. To date, nobody has been punished for it. The perpetrators are still in power, still as murderous as they were, and still fighting for a one-party state.
Gukurahundi was an inter-ministerial effort
The minister of state security at the time, Emmerson Mnangagwa, identified the threat – Ndebeles. The minister of state responsible for defence, Sydney Sekeramayi, as required of him, investigated and confirmed the threat – Ndebeles. After receiving intelligence from Mnangagwa and Sekeramayi, the prime minister and commander-in-chief of the defence forces, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, who also doubled as minister of defence, deployed the army to deal with the threat – Ndebeles. Solomon Mujuru was the army commander at the time. The commander of 1 brigade, the operational area of the mission, was Constantine Chiwenga.
Mnangagwa is currently Zimbabwe’s president and Chiwenga his vice-president.
A brigade was specially trained by a Korean delegation for this mission. It was called the 5th Brigade and its job was to execute the mission. The commander of this brigade was a man who was born as Bigboy Samson Chikerema. As commander of the 5th Brigade, he led his troops to war against unarmed civilians. His orders were clear – eliminate all Ndebeles.
During the operation, he called himself “Black Jesus”.
“I decide whether you live or die,” he was known to tell his victims. He was a rapist and a murderer. He later changed his name to Perrance Shiri, and on 29 July 2020, much to our horror and regret – for we have been robbed of a chance to prosecute him for his crimes – he kicked the bucket.
My only hope is that there is indeed a place called hell. DM/MC
Thandekile Moyo is a writer and human rights defender from Zimbabwe. For the past four years, she has been using print, digital and social media (Twitter: @mamoxn) to expose human rights abuses, bad governance and corruption.
The Puma, Cougar and Mountain Lion are all the same animal.