While the term HIV/AIDS is used almost universally in Zimbabwe by health professionals and lay people, there are also a great diversity of indigenous names for the disease. Some of these names include mkondombera, or ‘a stubborn disease that once it gets hold will never let go'; ; bumbiro rezvirwere, or ‘a basket full of seeds of different variety all germinating at one time'; shuramatongo, or ‘a ghost homestead'; and gukurahundi, or ‘a heavy rain that washes away everything'.
Zimbabwe did not come to Independence easily: the decade which preceded Independence was one which saw the fighting of an increasingly violent civil war, a war which cost many thousands of civilian lives and caused untold hardship and suffering. While the full number of casualties will never be known, it has been estimated that at least 30 000 people died countrywide, although real numbers of dead could be more than double this figure.
Gukurahundi is a Shona term which means “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains”. Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army [ZANLA] declared 1978 “the Year of the People,” to be filled with preparations for Gore re Gukurahundi, or the “Year of the People’s Storm,” in 1979. By mid-1978, ZANLA had infiltrated 13,000 guerrillas into Rhodesia, spread across the country and training local forces to support the insurgency.
Gukurahundi is also the term used for the actions taken by Robert Mugabe’s Fifth Brigade in the Ndebele provinces of Matabeleland and Midlands in the mid to late 1980s. It has been estimated that some 20,000 people were killed, mostly the Ndebele people. The Gukurahundi policy was adopted in 1979 and continued until the early 1990s. The campaign is said to have lasted from 1982 to 1987 ending with the Unity Accord signed in December 1987 by Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo. Estimates for the number of deaths during the five-year Gukurahundi campaign ranged from 3,750 to 80,000.
There were two overlapping conflicts in Matabeleland. The first conflict was between the dissidents and Government defence units, which included 4 Brigade, 6 Brigade, the Paratroopers, the CIO [Central Intelligence Organisation ] and the Police Support Unit. The second conflict involved Government agencies and all those who were thought to support ZAPU [Zimbabwe African People's Union]. 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 [Police Internal Security Intelligence unit] and the ZANU-PF Youth Brigades.
In 1981 North Korea sent a team of advisors comprising 160 men to Harare to train the 5th Brigade of Zimbabwe's National Army. The North Korean soldiers had the reputation for being corrupt in Zimbabwe. In exchange for their support for the dictatorship, North Korean officials lived in colonial mansions, had many servants, swam in swimming pools, and played tennis at the courts of embassies in Harare. The officials earned $20,000 (3,000,000 escudos) a year, over three times their salary in North Korea.
The Zimbabwean government announced that the North Koreans had been repatriated in 1982 after the 5th Brigade had become operational. However, Western sources assert that the North Koreans were expelled for having launched the poorly trained trooµs of the 5th Brigade on a disastrous mission against anti-Marxist rebels in Mozambique. Western observers also say that the North Koreans encouraged the 5th Brigade to conduct a war of extermination against the Matabele rebel tribe in southern Zimbabwe, engaging in theft, rape, and tortur. The victims of the atrocity called the troops trained by the North Koreans "gukurahundi," which means "the tornade that devastates everything."
The unit that executed the campaign against the Ndebele was 5 Brigade, the newly-formed organization trained by North Koreans to serve not the government overall, but specifically ZANU-PF. The shock of the brigade’s behavior when it descended on a village literally struck terror into the surrounding area. Residents were shot on flimsy accusations—Ndebele veterans of the liberation struggle were especially singled out — and an occupation might last days, with tortures, exhortations, forced public rallies, drumhead trials, humiliations, rapes…followed by the destruction of crops and imposed starvation. Far from the suppression of an incipient insurrection, the goal was the destruction of a people’s will to resist.
Joshua Nkomo led the Ndebele-dominated Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). The Shona-dominated Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) was led initially by the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole and later by Robert Mugabe. Shortly after Mugabe’s 1980 election, following the ouster of white supremacist Ian Smith’s regime, Mugabe summoned nationalism among the Shona people – comprising about 70 percent of the population – to consolidate his power and sideline his greatest liberation rival, the Ndebele tribesman Joshua Nkomo.
The alleged discovery of large caches of arms on ZAPU-owned properties in Matabeleland in 1982 led to Joshua Nkomo’s dismissal from government office. Dissidents from Nkomo’s former guerrilla force, ZIPRA, [Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army] perpetrated indiscriminate acts of violence in a pogrom in the Ndebele heartlands of Matabeleland and the Midlands.
The Government responded by sending the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade to Matabeleland in early 1983 to quell dissent. The mainly Shona Fifth Brigade was accused of committing atrocities against civilians in its ‘pacification’ campaign and it alienated support for the Government among Matabeleland’s Ndebele population. It has been estimated that as many as 10,000 civilians died during the Fifth Brigade’s campaign, while other sources state that the number killed could have been up to 20,000 civilians.
Once in power, Mugabe moved relentlessly and artfully to reduce Nkomo’s authority, unleashing the Gukurahundi, the “sweeping away of the trash,” a wave of ferocious violence against the Ndebele and other residents of Matabeleland in the southwest. He used shocking violence to break Nkomo’s power bases, using, as his excuse, trumped up charges that the Ndebele were hoarding arms to overthrow the government. Thousands died, whiles tens of thousands were beaten, raped, robbed or dispossessed. The level of violence and cruelty far exceeded anything perpetrated by the vanquished Rhodesian regime, but, in the euphoria over “liberation,” the world turned its eyes away.
The Gukurahundi massacres ended in 1987 when Joshua Nkomo agreed to dissolve his political structures PF-ZAPU and join ZANU-PF, creating a virtual one-party state. This is when Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo reached a conciliation on 22 December 1987, and signed a Unity Accord.
Without undertaking a process of reconciliation, Zimbabwean history is taut with fear that still affects the present. The Gukurahundi massacre in the early 1980s still weighs heavily on Ndebele people. People interviewed in Bulawayo broke into tears recounting how their families were decimated by the slaughter. The government admitted to killing 20,000 people in conditions it described as ‘warfare’. Other sources describe the incursion into Matabeleland by the Fifth Brigade as tantamount to genocide in which 250,000 lives were claimed. Orphans of the conflict are still internally displaced people who have been denied citizenship. The need for protection of minority rights is felt by the Ndebele minority to be imperative for their security.
In October 2006 the ZANU-PF spokesman, Nathan Shamuyrira, was quoted in a press report as saying the actions of the Fifth Brigade in the 1980s were “‘not regrettable as they (the Brigade) were doing a job to protect the people’”. These remarks were deplored by the ZANU-PF national chairman.
Each year since 2011, police in Bulawayo have blocked the NGO’s planned memorial and prayer services for an estimated 20,000 victims of the 1980s Gukurahundi mass killings by government forces, stating the services would incite violence. Attempts to hold the memorial services were blocked twice during 2015.
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