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Remembering Zimbabwe's forgotten crime scenes

Defend Truth

Opinionista

Remembering Zimbabwe’s forgotten crime scenes

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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. Moyo holds an Honours degree in Geography and Environmental Studies from the Midlands State University in Zimbabwe.

At a memorial of a massacre of 21 women and one man in 1983, community members and chiefs say that the Gukurahundi genocide is a part of our history that must be remembered ‘so that in future we say never again should such a thing happen. It will act as a reminder even to future governments and future generations to say this is part of what our country went through and it must never happen again.’

The road to Tsholotsho’s Mkhonyeni village, if I can even call it a road, tells a story. It tells a story of neglect, marginalisation, injustice and of dehumanisation. There is no road basically. We drove through a narrow pathway between trees in a dense forest. I remember asking myself, “So the Pumas (army trucks used in the Gukurahundi genocide) drove on this ‘road’?”

At a memorial of a massacre of 21 women and one man in 1983, community members and chiefs said that the Gukurahundi genocide was a part of their history that must be remembered ‘so that in future we say never again should such a thing happen’. (Photo: Supplied)

They must have felt like they were hunting animals. So remote is the area that even today, 41 years after Zimbabwe’s Independence, I felt like I was on a game drive. It is unthinkable that in that forest live hundreds of people, and in that forest lie unknown numbers of mass graves. If this were a movie, everyone would have been evacuated and we would have a yellow ribbon around the entire district of Tsholotsho, inscribed with “police line, do not cross” — because Tsholotsho, from what I witnessed and gathered yesterday, is a crime scene. 

On 16 May Ibhetshu Likazulu, an NGO that pursues justice for victims of the Gukurahundi genocide, held a memorial service for 21 women and one man who were burnt alive at their homestead in Mkhomeni village in Tsholotsho, by the Zimbabwe national army on 16 March 1983. 

Kossam Ndlovu, a son of one of the women burnt to death, explained how the Fifth Brigade soldiers rounded them up and took them to the bush where they interrogated them about “dissidents”. The soldiers then noticed that there were no young girls in the group and they asked where the girls were? One of the villagers then explained that someone had told the girls to run away. This apparently angered the soldiers who then started beating everyone up. They then frog-marched the adults back to their homestead and locked the 22 in a room and set it alight.

Another speaker, Thabani Dlamini, whose mother, Gogo Mabhena, managed to escape from the fire, explained how they (the children) were saved by a soldier who said “the children know nothing, leave them”. They were then left under the guard of some soldiers and they watched their parents and older sisters being taken away. 

Thabani says they heard screams coming from the house and saw billows of smoke rising from the direction of the homestead. He says they also heard several gunshots and saw someone running from the direction of the home, later identified as one of the women who survived. She had bolted from the burning room when the door fell in and the soldiers shot at her and missed as she escaped. 

She is still alive, but has migrated from the area. She sent her son to represent her at the memorial as she is now old and unwell. 

Thabani described how after the massacre, several soldiers went back to the children and took the older children with them to the crime scene where they found bodies of some of the women strewn across the yard. They had apparently been shot as they tried to run from the fire. The soldiers are said to have instructed the older children to drag the bodies into the huts. Afterwards, the soldiers are said to have told the children to go and find their relatives as they were now orphans.

Another woman who survived the arson, Nomathemba Matshazi, was at the memorial. She has a scar on one of her eyes — it looks like some flesh was shaved off. She explained that it was from a gunshot. 

She said she and her seven-month-old baby were among the people locked in the room that was set ablaze. She says on the day, the soldiers descended upon their home and marched them out of their yard where they found many other people who had been taken from their homes. Once there, she says they were questioned about “dissidents”. After the questioning, they were taken back into the homestead and bundled into a hut. She explained that the other huts had already been burnt while they were being interrogated.

Nomathemba explained that many of the women were holding their babies so those who had no babies fought to break down the door and eventually succeeded. They ran out of the blazing heat and the soldiers opened fire on them. She says one of the women shot and killed, Juliet Moyo, was pregnant. 

Nomathemba says they shot her too, but by some miracle, she did not die. When she came to, she no longer had her baby. She says she did not know what happened to her baby, but suspected she may have fallen back into the fire when she was shot. She hid in one of the burnt huts fearing the soldiers would come back, until she decided the next day to crawl to a nearby aunt’s home, only to discover her aunt had been stabbed to death too. She says other villagers managed to find her and went with her to the bush where they all hid for two months. 

In a powerful display of solidarity, five Matabeleland chiefs attended the memorial service — Chief Khulumani Mathema of Gwanda, Chief Dakamela of Nkayi, Chief Tategulu, Chief Gampu and the local chief, Chief Siphoso Dlodlo.

Chief Mathema gave an emotional and heartfelt speech expressing the heartbreak that it was women who had been killed in this massacre. He also said that as chiefs, they were representatives of the people and the Gukurahundi issue was a top priority to them, at both a personal level as they too (chiefs) were victims and also at a leadership level, as it was their people who were targeted by the government and army. 

Chief Mathema said, “We are insulted as Ndebeles and that we are uneducated, but we all know it is because of Gukurahundi.”

He made reference to a speech by one of the family members who had spoken earlier, saying if his parents had not been murdered on that fateful day, maybe he too would have gone to school. He said because he was uneducated and unemployable, it was unlikely that his children would be educated either. He has no means to educate them.

Chief Mathema said the people of Matebeleland had the responsibility of fighting for justice for victims of Gukurahundi. He said what happened in Matebeleland during the genocide was terrible and there wa a need for truth-telling, justice, peace and reconciliation. 

He said the children of Matebeleland were scattered all over because they ran from Gukurahundi to neighbouring countries and beyond and never came back. He said there was a leadership vacuum when it came to addressing the genocide because there was a need for an authority to solve the issue, and that initiative must not be led by the perpetrators or people from other countries, but by them, the victims.  

He says Gukurahundi “did not come and go, it did not stop killing us, it is killing us still and if we are not careful we shall all perish. Gukurahundi must be addressed as it is cancerous.” 

Chief Siphoso Dlodlo, the resident chief, explained that this atrocity was committed on 16 March 1983, but this was the first time they had managed to grieve. He said it was impossible to grieve at the time with guns at the backs of their heads.

Chief Sphoso said if they looked at the numbers of people murdered by the soldiers between January and 16 March 1983 then they could appreciate the scale of the atrocities. He said it was unthinkable that human beings could commit crimes as heinous as those committed at that home.

“What kind of people lock people in a room and set it alight?” he asked.

The resident chief expressed gratitude to the visiting chiefs and said he was happy they could join him in his grief. He told the villagers that he was determined to stand with them in their fight for justice over Gukurahundi. He said the government needed to take responsibility and make reparations by educating and developing affected communities. He said it was important that the people of Matebeleland unite.

Chief Siphoso said the Mkhonyeni village community have committed to turning the site into a museum in a bid to memorialise the victims and to educate future generations about what happened. He also said they had agreed to commemorate 16 March every year. 

Mbuso Fuzwayo, the founder of Ibhetshu Likazulu, said it was important for communities to be given space to commemorate and mourn. He urged the government not to tamper with the plaques as it had to understand that they had a purpose. The Gukurahundi genocide was a part of their history so it was important to have the plaques so that in future they could say, never again should such a thing happen. It would act as a reminder even to future governments and future generations to say that was part of what the country went through — and it must never happen again. 

Fuzwayo said the memorialisation in Tsholotsho was very important and it had to be encouraged. 

Fuzwayo said this because on 28 February 2018, Ibhetshu Likazulu had been shocked when after erecting a plaque in honour of genocide victims at Bhalagwe concentration camp, state agents destroyed the plaque and threatened villagers. DM/MC

For the past four years, Thandekile Moyo has been using print, digital and social media (Twitter: @mamoxn) to expose human rights abuses, bad governance and corruption. Moyo holds an Honours degree in Geography and Environmental Studies from the Midlands State University in Zimbabwe.

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  • May we ask, who was that leader of the Gukurahundi operation and where is he today? This needs to be stated in the article . . .

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