Issue 3, 20-27 June 2003 "The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they suppress"




Compiled by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe, March 1997

When Robert Mugabe assumed office as the first Prime Minister of Zimbabwe on 18 April 1980, he was faced with the task of uniting a country which had been subjected to 90 years of increasingly repressive, racist rule. There had also been over a decade of escalating military activity, which had served not only to accelerate the process of liberating the majority, but also to create some divisions within it. In addition, the new Zimbabwe had a powerful and hostile neighbour, South Africa.


It was obvious that integrating a community that had serious divisions within itself would be no easy task. Mugabe himself had long been an assassination target, and attempts on his life continued. He escaped an attempt on his life near Masvingo during the election campaign. He and others narrowly escaped a "Rhodesian" assassination attempt planned to coincide with Independence Day in 1980. In December 1981 South African agents attempted to kill him by blowing up the new ZANU-PF headquarters, and in July 1982 there was yet another abortive attempt on his life, involving ex-ZIPRA combatants, when shots were fired at his residence in Harare.

In addition, there were sporadic outbreaks of violence emanating from the guerrilla assembly points (APs) countrywide. Such outbreaks began before Independence and continued throughout the early 1980s. This violence was committed by both ZANLA and ZIPRA ex-combatants, sometimes against civilians and quite often against each other: the causes of this were complex.

The net result of the unstable situation was that by early 1982, Zimbabwe had serious security problems in various parts of the country, particularly in the western half. Bands of "dissidents" were killing civilians and destroying property.

The Government responded with a massive security clampdown on Matabeleland and parts of the Midlands. What is apparent in retrospect and will be shown in this report is that there were two overlapping "conflicts" going on in Matabeleland. The first conflict was between the dissidents and Government defence units, which included 4 Brigade, 6 Brigade, the Paratroopers, the CIO and the Police Support Unit. The second conflict involved Government agencies and all those who were thought to support ZAPU. This was carried out mainly against unarmed civilians in those rural areas which traditionally supported ZAPU; it was also at times carried out against ZAPU supporters in urban areas. The Government agencies which were engaged in this second conflict were primarily 5 Brigade, the CIO, PISI and the ZANU-PF Youth Brigades, as shown in this report. These units committed many human rights violations, which compounded the plight of civilians who were once more caught in the middle of a problem not of their own making.

The Government's attitude was that the two conflicts were one and the same, and that to support ZAPU was the same as to support dissidents. Rural civilians, the ZAPU leadership and the dissidents themselves all denied and continue to deny this allegation. Whatever the ultimate truth on that issue, it is indisputable that thousands of unarmed civilians died, were beaten, or suffered loss of property during the 1980s, some at the hands of dissidents and most as a result of the actions of Government agencies.


One of the most painful aspects of the 1980s conflict for its victims is their perception that their plight is unacknowledged. Officially, the State continues to deny any serious culpability for events during those years, and refuses to allow open dialogue on the issue. In effect, there is a significant chunk of Zimbabwean history which is largely unknown, except to those who experienced it at first hand. All Zimbabweans, both present and future, should be allowed access to this history.

Only by fully exploring how the 1980s crisis developed, can future Zimbabweans hope to avoid a repetition of such violence.

It is only once all Zimbabweans have acknowledged this part of their history, that it can be put aside. The belief that truth and reconciliation are not mutually exclusive is the belief of those who have motivated this project. In fact, it is believed that lasting reconciliation is contingent on truth.

Those who would rather that events of the 1980s should remain shrouded in secrecy have claimed that discussing them will "reopen" old wounds. However, it was clear during the interviewing procedure that, for thousands of people, these wounds have never healed: people still suffer today, physically, psychologically and practically as a result of what they experienced in the 1980s. Far from "reopening" old wounds, the victims' being allowed to speak out and having their stories validated by a non-judgmental audience has begun what is hoped will be a healing process, after more than 10 years of people suffering in fear and isolation.

Critics of this project have been quick to point out that in April 1980, Mr Mugabe made a magnanimous speech, in which he "drew a line through the past", and forgave those whites and others who had persecuted the black majority in the country, particularly during 10 years of increasingly bitter war in the 1970s. Why, then, it is asked, does this report seek to hold the very Government, which was so forgiving, accountable for its own shortcomings in the next decade?
It is not the intention of this report that its evidence be used to hold individual human rights violators accountable. The report seeks rather to promote greater openness to certain truths, currently denied, in the belief that this will lead to greater reconciliation of communities and will help victims to rise above their memories of pain and any desires for retribution.

There may be individuals not only among victims, but also among the dissidents and security agencies responsible for violations, who need an atmosphere of truth-telling in order to purge themselves of their memories of events.

It also needs to be pointed out that while the perpetrators of offences in the war for Independence have not been held accountable as individuals, many documents exist, including a substantial body of academic books and memoirs, ensuring that this part of the nation's history is accessible to those who wish to know it. These have been written not only by those who once opposed the colonial order, but also by those who were part of this old colonial order, as well as by international academics. While far from complete in its documentation, an important record of events surrounding the Second Chimurenga has been produced over the years. For example, the names Nyadzonia and Chimoio arouse deep emotions in all Zimbabweans, and not only those who lost loved ones in the brutal raids on these external guerrilla camps. While nobody was ever held accountable for the terrible massacres, Zimbabweans have access to details of these events if they wish to know more.

But many, both nationally and internationally, are unaware that the name "Bhalagwe" arouses similarly deep emotions for people who live in Matabeleland. It is only those in affected areas who attach significance to this name.

That many parties were at least partly culpable in the unfolding of events is clear. These include ZANU-PF, those ex-ZIPRAs and others who became dissidents, those remnants of Rhodesian state agencies which sought to disrupt unity, and South African agents who both actively disseminated misinformation and who also trained and equipped dissidents.

It is the intention of this report to broaden the debate on how these events unfolded, which has so far been restricted to a very small number of academics and human rights activists, and to allow all concerned parties to enter into healthy public debate over issues they dispute, so that a more complete picture of the truth can emerge.

There is a need for a deeper and more lasting reconciliation in Zimbabwe. This is only possible when the magnitude of the happenings in the affected areas is more widely understood by all those concerned. Only when those who inflicted untold hardship are prepared to acknowledge that they did so, can a lasting reconciliation take place between all who live in Zimbabwe. Only then can bitterness and fear finally be eased. Once the fact that thousands suffered atrocities during those years has been acknowledged, once fear has finally receded, then victims will feel able to speak out about their experiences without dreading retribution.

What those we have spoken to in Matabeleland want more than anything else is lasting peace in Zimbabwe.

They do not want a witch hunt, just a chance to be heard.

They have survived two terrible civil wars in as many decades, and they have received no guarantee that it will not happen again. Only one senior minister in the last 13 years has expressed public regret for what happened. In fact, ministers are on public record as saying they will never apologise.

The single exception to this is Minister Mahachi, who said in the Sunday Mail of 6 September 1992 that:

" during that period are regretted and should not be repeated by anybody, any group of people or any institution in this country."

However, if most people do not know in the first instance what it was that happened, and why it happened, how can a repetition be avoided?
Part of the process of psychological healing for any victim of abuse, is being given the opportunity to recount that suffering to a supportive, non-judgmental audience. It is at least partly in recognition of this principle that truth commissions have taken place in other parts of the world in recent years. Those involved with taking testimony for the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission have noted:

In many instances the act of telling their stories to a sympathetic statutory body which acknowledges their pain has proved a cathartic one for witnesses. A common thread running through their testimonies is an extraordinary capacity to forgive, if they can only know the truth.

One of the most tragic effects of events in the 1980s is that it served to harden "ethnic" differences in Zimbabwe, resulting in what could be referred to as "quasi-nationalism". Recent events in Sri Lanka, Rwanda and Yugoslavia provide sad testimony to what happens when such conflicts are not satisfactorily resolved. Recent conflicts in all these countries have their roots in previous, unsatisfactorily resolved internal conflicts. While the signing of the agreement of National Unity in 1987 was an important step towards reconciliation, there are many issues that still need to be aired by ordinary citizens of Zimbabwe and taken into account by its national leadership, if we are to prevent a recurrence of violence between future generations of Zimbabweans.
More than a thousand ordinary citizens came forward in the last five years to relate their experiences to the compilers of this report. People often travelled long distances to give evidence, and waited overnight to tell their stories. For many, this was the first time they had been given the opportunity to have their experiences formally recorded. Many wept, or expressed anger, or voiced confusion as to why violence of the 1980s ever took place.

Many expressed pain at the memory of how senior officials had refused to acknowledge events at the time: the disappearances of people were repeatedly denied in the 1980s, and death certificates were denied for corpses who officially had not been murdered. Others related how their pain at the loss of a loved family member was compounded by a death certificate with a fallacious cause of death filled in: for example, one murdered person had "stomach injury" recorded as the cause of death.

All evidence was given entirely voluntarily, and without suggestion of reward or future compensation. The need to document events historically was explained as the primary intention of this report, and the desire to help set the record straight was apparently motivation enough for witnesses.

While those who came forward gave evidence freely, some told of other victims who were still too afraid to tell their stories. That this fear was not unjustifed was borne out in our second case study area, where the CIO made what were perceived as intimidatory appearances at interview sessions and interrogated at least one person who helped the data collection process, and where certain councillors also actively discouraged their ward members from giving statements.

According to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission,enabling the victims to talk freely and not to be dismissed as liars without being given due consideration is an important aspect of "restoring the dignity and honour as well as the good names of victims".

A substantial body of evidence, some published and most previously unpublished, has long been in existence detailing the broader historical events and the abuses suffered by individuals in the 1980s. This report aims to bring together data collected in the 1980s, when the disturbances were taking place, as well as information from interviews conducted in the 1990s.

Claims of casualty numbers have varied dramatically over the last decade, with the then-ZAPU opposition party leader Joshua Nkomo mentioning a figure of 20 000 dead, and other sources putting the figure as low as 700. There is a need to resolve these disparities by methodical investigation, in order to set the historical record straight.

Data sources have been used to reconstruct a chronicle of events and, more importantly, to detail the reported impact of these events on communities and individuals. Sources document atrocities across most of Matabeleland and in parts of the Midlands.

Interviews in 1995/6 were centred on two case study areas, as time and funding did not allow for comprehensive research across all affected areas. The case studies aim to quantify as accurately as possible, within the acknowledged limitations of the data available, the extent of the abuses, and their perpetrators, in the two specified areas between 1982 and 1988. Research in the case study areas was extensive in the first targetted area, and less extensive but nonetheless very revealing in the second targetted area. It has resulted in a much clearer picture of the nature of abuses in these two areas, and in the process much evidence of atrocities in other districts has also been documented.

While the precise number of dead will almost certainly never be known, more accurate estimates are now possible.

Apart from murders, many other atrocities took place in Zimbabwe between 1982 and 1988, such as the destruction of homesteads or even entire villages, mass detentions of civilians, and the physical torture of civilians, including rape and the phenomenon of mass beatings.

The findings in the two case study areas are documented in Part Two. The pattern of abuse in all areas of Zimbabwe as revealed by a variety of sources is also summarised in this section, in the form of tables and graphs. Part Three discusses some of the implications of these findings.

The full scale of the impact of the civil conflict on those who survived it has yet to be forensically established. However, from interviews now on record, it is apparent that those years have left people with a legacy of problems which include physical, psychological and practical difficulties. Some of these negative legacies, as apparent from the data base, are listed below.-

Families were left destitute, without breadwinners and without shelter. -

Many people, possibly thousands, suffered permanent damage to their health as a result of physical torture, inhibiting their ability to seek work, or to maintain their lands and perform daily chores such as carrying water.-

Possibly hundreds of murder victims have never been officially declared dead. The lack of death certificates has resulted in a multitude of practical problems for their children, who battle to receive birth certificates, and for their spouses who, for example, cannot legally inherit savings accounts.
-Others who fled their homes to protect themselves were considered to have deserted their employment without due notice, and forfeited benefits including pensions as a result. -

Many people, possibly thousands, who were either victims of physical torture, or forced to witness it, continue to suffer psychological disorders indicative of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD). Such disorders as unexplained anxieties, dizziness, insomnia, hypochondria and a permanent fear and distrust of senior government officials are evident in victims. Typically, such victims pass on their stress to their children and create a heavy extra burden on existing health care structures.

The timing of the report is significant: enough time has now elapsed that many victims have been able to overcome the memories of fear sufficiently to tell their stories. At the same time, to have delayed any longer would have meant increasing difficulties in locating source documents and people. Much of this data has already been lost, destroyed, or thrown out: people who were involved at the time have died, moved away from Zimbabwe, or have begun to forget precise details, such as dates of events. This report attempts to rescue and order a substantial proportion of what information remains, although there are doubtless documents that have not been located.

During the 1980s, the continuing disturbances and the fact that the Emergency Power Regulations were in place, severely limiting freedom of movement, freedom of association and freedom of expression, made the prospect of actively canvassing information from victims not practical. However, in July 1990, the state of emergency was repealed and Emergency Powers were dropped for the first time since 1965. Also in 1990, the Bulawayo Legal Project Centre (BLPC) opened its first paralegal office, in Lupane in Matabeleland North. Almost immediately, reports of practical problems arising from events in the 1980s were brought to the attention of this paralegal office. People who were in need of death certificates for relatives said to have been murdered began to seek help. People wanting to know their rights in terms of claiming damages for losses suffered at the hands of government agencies also began to report their experiences. As other paralegal offices opened in other parts of rural Matabeleland, similar requests and reports began to come in.

It was also apparent that the Government had decided that there would be no compensation given to people who suffered as a result of Government action during the years 1982/88. However, the data base reflecting the present consequences of events in the 1980s continued to grow. The decision to order this data base, first and foremost to establish an accurate historical record, and secondly to suggest ways of helping victims on the strength of it, was made by BLPC in conjunction with CCJP in 1993. The process of establishing funding and personnel, and the devising of suitable interview forms and a computer data base, took some time.

It was in 1995/96 that the archival material was examined in detail and also in 1995/96 that interviewing took place in earnest in the 2 case study areas. The interviews conducted in the 1990s reflect how the years 1982/88 are currently perceived by the more than a thousand people who reported to project personnel. This report is therefore focussed on events of the 1980s both as a history and as a part of the present.

©The New Zimbabwe