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reveals horror details of the Ndebele massacre
Arno Kopecky, The Nation (Kenya)
November 11, 2007
Nairobi - On August 3,
1983, President Robert Mugabe created Zimbabwe's Fifth Brigade from
soldiers drawn from the military wing of his ruling Zanu PF. The
brigade was known as gukurahundi, (rain that washes away chaff),
a name that was soon given to the government operation they undertook.
Over the next four years, Operation Gukurahundi would terrorise
members of the Ndebele community throughout southern Zimbabwe because
of the perceived threat they posed to Mugabe and his predominantly
Shona regime. By the time it ended, at least 20,000 people are alleged
to have been killed. "It's an episode you never hear brought
up in conversation," says Zenzele Ndebele, the soft-spoken
29-year-old journalist who has just released the first documentary
ever made on the subject. "Twenty-seven years after independence,
people are still afraid to bring it up. I'm not going to make a
penny off this documentary, but if it generates some dialogue I'll
Gukurahundi: A Moment
of Madness is a 25-minute investigation into what many observers
have labelled an attempted genocide. Given the current climate of
fear in Zimbabwe, gathering interviews from survivors was an exceptional
challenge. "Everybody here knows someone who was affected by
Gukurahundi," says Ndebele, who lives near where most of the
atrocities were committed, in the southern city of Bulawayo. "But
it was very, very hard to find anyone who would open up. Of those
who agreed to talk, several changed their minds afterwards - they
would call and ask me not to include them in the footage. So I had
to cut the film from 45 to 25 minutes. What you see is just a fraction
of what actually occurred."
That fraction seems horrifying
enough. Archived footage of a young Mugabe calmly promising to "crush
the dissidents, completely," is counterposed with present-day
interviews in which some of those "dissidents" who survived
reveal the ordeals they were put through. One man describes scores
of young men being pushed down a mine shaft; those who resisted
were shot and thrown in, until the shaft filled with bodies and
another had to be found. Another recounts how, as a young boy, he
was ordered to set fire to the house in which soldiers had locked
30 of his family members. "Luckily," he says, "a
rain storm broke out after the soldiers left, and put the fire out."
It was a rare reprieve in a narrative of slaughter and denial that
bears some sinister parallels to the present.
Newspaper headlines from
the mid-1980s show Mugabe's government government denying any wrongdoing.
"Of course when you're fighting a war, you expect people to
complain of excessive force," explains a smooth-faced Mugabe,
inviting his accusers to prove their allegations. Today, those same
denials and calls for proof of what everyone knows to be happening
are offered in response to allegations of police brutality against
members of Zimbabwe's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic
Change (MDC). Gukurahundi demonstrates how the government erases
its own misdeeds. One veteran journalist describes how Fifth Brigade
soldiers escorted him to the site of a mass grave. "We knew
the victims had been buried here," he says. "But by the
time the army let us near, they had exhumed and burned the bodies.
The grave was empty, and all that was left were ashes everywhere."
Elsewhere, doctors' reports that documented the stab wounds and
marks of torture on innocent civilians were denounced as lies; such
reports were used as proof of treason against the very doctors who
On December 22, 1987,
the government signed the Unity Accord, which put an end to the
fighting. Gukurahundi disappeared from the collective memory, replaced
by a surreal peace which, at first glance, appears to reign even
to this day. "If you didn't know what was going on in this
country, you'd think everything was normal," says Ndebele.
But his own experience attests that not far under the surface, things
are anything but peaceful. For one thing, he and his cameramen had
to keep the entire project under wraps while they were filming.
"Whenever we drove out for an interview, we'd bring a tape
of a funeral and put it into the camera," he recalls. "That
way, if we were stopped at a roadblock - which happened often -
and they asked us what we were doing, we would just say we were
coming back from filming a funeral. The real footage we would hide
elsewhere in the car."
intelligence officers got wind of what he was up to and called him
in one day. "They accused me of plotting to bomb the president,"
Ndebele says, laughing at the absurdity of the claim. "All
sorts of ridiculous accusations. But eventually they had to let
me go." But the completion of the documentary did not bring
an end to such hassles. To begin with, he had to sneak across the
border into South Africa for the movie's debut. "There was
no way we could show it in Zimbabwe," he told this writer the
day before he left. "So I arranged to do it in Johannesburg.
But although I sent my passport off three weeks ago for a travel
visa, I still haven't gotten it back. They think all Zimbabweans
want to stay permanently in South Africa - they don't realise some
of us are enjoying the chaos here at home." By Ndebele's own
admission, that enjoyment is about to be tested. He fully expects
the police to lock him up once the movie is out in distribution.
And yet, asked if he is worried about where that may lead, he shrugs.
"They can't do anything to me legally," he says. "Maybe
they'll beat me up. Let them. It will be good for history."
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