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Monica Dispatch

Breaking the Silence: 5 Brigade Victims Compensated

"Peace is not the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice." - Martin Luther King

Recent newspaper headlines announced that Prime Minister Mugabe will be compensating survivors and relatives of victims of the 5 Brigade - a government organized military group that committed major acts of violence against civilians in the Matabeleland part of Zimbabwe in the early 1980's.

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The situation is not exactly as simple as this headline reads

Suggested compensation would include social assistance for widows and school fees and support for children. However, for many, the fact that this compensation is being announced now, rather than years ago, seems suspect, and the motives are also being called into question,. While, various groups and committees have documented human rights abuses, worked towards social justice, and collected names of the survivors, I have been told that "the committee members don't want to give out the names [of the victims]. They don't trust the government."

One such study by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe, entitled "Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace: A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands 1980 to 1988" chronicles the history of what happened in the transition from a colonial government to the current government. The study also gives recommendations for a national acknowledgement of the gruesome events in the decade after Independence, as well as the indictment of human rights violators, legal amendments to help victims get compensated, the repatriation of human remains, psychological assistance to survivors, development in communities that were destroyed, and constitutional safeguards to prevent large-scale human rights violations in the future.

The following section provides a brief summary of the conflict between ZAPU and ZANU:

"Originally, there was one main liberation movement, known as ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People's Union). In 1963, the party split for many reasons, some political and some personal. A new party was formed, called ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union). Neither party was tribalist by nature, that is, both had members from all tribal groups. However, over time, the two parties became quite different in certain ways. ZAPU's army was trained in Russia, ZANU's in China. They used different battle techniques and began to recruit from different parts of the country. ZAPU recruited mainly from the Ndebele-speaking western region of Zimbabwe, and ZANU mainly from the Shona-speaking eastern regions.

"The two armies, ZIPRA (armed wing of ZAPU) and ZANLA (armed wing of ZANU), came to see each other as rivals for popular support. There were many battles between them when they met, both inside and outside Zimbabwe. At Independence, the two armies did not trust each other. This made it very difficult to try to make them into one Zimbabwean army. This was a very important factor in what happened in the 1980s, for example at Entumbane [site of conflict between ZIPRA and ZANLA guerrillas].

"Some would say the problems between Shona-speakers and Ndebele-speakers go back to the 1800s, when Ndebele warriors raided Shona tribes and stole their cattle and women. However, other historians have said these traditional ideas were deliberately exaggerated by colonizers, and then for political reasons after Independence. The main reason for persecution in the 1980s was not to do with this history, but was for modern, political purposes. It was not really because they were 'Ndebele-speaking' but because they were mainly ZAPU-supporting, that people in Matabeleland and parts of the Midlands were persecuted.

"However, one of the saddest outcomes of the violence in the 1980s is that many people have come to see the conflict during this time as ethnic in nature. It has been misinterpreted as a civil war between Shonas and Ndebeles. This is not accurate. Most people in Mashonaland had no idea what was really happening, nor would they have wished ordinary people in Matabeleland to have been persecuted. Similarly, most people in Matabeleland did not become dissidents, nor did they support what the dissidents did.

"But the Government increasingly referred to supporters of ZAPU as being supporters of dissidents: ZAPU, dissidents and Ndebele-speakers in Zimbabwe all came to be seen as one and the same thing in the eyes of certain Government officials. This is clear when reading newspaper reports from those years.

"It is important to remember the conflict was really more about politics than ethnicity: it was about creating a one-party state in Zimbabwe."

The 5 Brigade came into existence under Prime Minister Mugabe's command. In October 1980, Mugabe signed an agreement with North Korean President Kim Il Sung that arranged for North Korean training of Zimbabwean troops. 106 Koreans were sent to train this new brigade which Mugabe said would be used to "deal with dissidents and any other trouble in the country." Joshua Nkomo, the leader of ZAPU, asked why this brigade was necessary when the already-existing national police force could handle internal problems. In response, Mugabe announced that the brigade would be called, "Gukurahundi," which means, "the rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains."

The 3500 ex-ZANLA troop members that made up the 5 Brigade were supplemented by some ZIPRA troops, which were withdrawn before the end of the training stage. The training stage lasted until September 1982. At deployment, the 5 Brigade, commanded by Colonel Perence Shiri, was different from all other army units: it answered only to the Prime Minister and did not follow a standard chain of command. It had unique codes, uniforms, radios and equipment that were not compatible with standard-issue Zimbabwean army tools. The 5 Brigade's most distinguishing feature was their red berets. Those with red berets were a law force unto themselves.

The 5 Brigade was deployed twice into Matabeleland - once in Matabeleland North in late January 1983, then in Matabeleland South in January 1984. After this, they were retrained, deployed again, then in 1986 finally withdrawn, to undergo a conventional training period under the British Military Advisory Team. In late 1986 the 5 Brigade was disbanded and its soldiers spread out between other normal brigades.

The deployments of the 5 Brigade into Matabeleland in the early 1980s were marked by terror and shock, with actions meant to draw out anti-government "dissidents". Within the first weeks of the first deployments, 5 Brigade troops had murdered more than two thousand civilians, beaten thousands more, destroyed property and burned houses. Civilians, not "dissidents," seemed to be specifically targeted during those weeks: dozens or hundreds of civilians were rounded up, marched at gun point to a central area, like a school or village well, beaten with sticks, and made to sing Shona songs praising ZANU-PF. These gatherings would then end with public executions.

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 Here I am writing this dispatch!

While the 5 Brigade was in Matabeleland, the government had enforced strict curfews on the region. For example, no one was permitted to enter or leave the area, transportation of all forms was banned and anyone caught using a donkey or bicycle was shot. Journalists were prevented from entering the area. There were also food shortages, and closed stores . By 1984, there had been three years of drought, and more than 400,000 civilians, without access to food, were brought to the edge of starvation. News of these actions only trickled out to the outside world when some people escaped to tell their stories to the foreign press.

Not only the 5 Brigade, but other groups such as the Youth Brigades, the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), and the Police Internal Security Intelligence Unit (PISI) were active at the time. Between June 1984 and August 1985, the ZANU-PF Youth Brigades were responsible for mob beatings, property burnings, and murders - all aimed at ZAPU supporters. The Youth Brigades forced people to attend ZANU-PF rallies and buy ZANU-PF cards. The damage they caused in city centers throughout the country like Gweru, Beitbridge, and Harare, left 4,000 homeless, hundreds injured and many dead. Few Youth Brigade members were charged or brought to trial, and the government did nothing. The CIO also played a role in the many disappearances, which left hundreds of families unable to give their loved ones a dignified burial or to pay proper final respects. CIO members detained and interrogated many thousands, using methods of torture that included electric shocks, falanga (beating on the feet), submarine (putting a person's head in a bucket of water), and suspension by the wrists. Detained people were kept in jail cells with inadequate food, bedding, or bathroom facilities, within earshot of the screams of others being tortured. The PISI, serving as a personal police force for the head of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Enos Nkala, was also greatly involved in the detainments and disappearances.

In response to the persecution, dissident-led violence did occur and increase between 1984 and 1987. For example, in 1985, in the weeks after the general election that kept Mugabe in power, dissidents murdered seventeen Shona-speaking villagers, including small children, in Mwenezi. They herded the villagers into a hut and set the hut on fire, shooting all that tried to escape. In 1987, dissidents also murdered two tourists on their way to Victoria Falls and hacked to death 16 missionaries in Matobo, including five children. Finally, on December 22, 1987, Prime Minister Mugabe and the leader of ZAPU, Joshua Nkomo, signed the Unity Accord. This effectively dissolved ZAPU into ZANU-PF, especially when Prime Minister Mugabe announced amnesty for all dissidents who surrendered and Minister Nkomo called for all to lay down their arms.

Statistics on the violence committed against civilians were documented by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe, and backed by figures collected by human-rights workers, journalists, missionaries, and lawyers. As many as 7000 civilians were killed and thousands more were injured by the time the 5 Brigade withdrew from Matebeleland.

The scars of the 1980s, however, have not healed, and although Mugabe has offered compensation for victims of those years' events, many are cynical. The human rights abuses of the early 1980's leave not only physical injuries, but mental and social ones as well. Individuals, groups, and entire villages have lost their loved ones, their property, their ability to get an education, and their community way of life. The pain that exists as an aftereffect of the murders and beatings deserves to be heard and spoken of if the people of Zimbabwe, particularly those in Matabeleland, are to understand their own history, share it with others, overcome their bitterness and suspicion of the government, and unite against the possibility of these events happening again.

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