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.
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 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The 3500 ex-ZANLA troop members that made up the 5 Brigade were supplemented by some ZIPRA troops, which were withdrawn before the end of the training stage.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.
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.
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.
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