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Two metres of drainage pipe
John Eppel
November 19, 2008

My family say I shouldn-t write about that time, it will just bring more trouble; but I am angry, very angry. When I saw Mrs Moyo-s grandchildren playing in the discarded asbestos drainage pipe at the bottom of our property, I was reminded of my older brother, Lawrence, who died at Bhalagwe camp in 1984, a month after his eighteenth birthday.

We, my brother, his friend, Neva, and I were walking home from school when we came across a group of armed soldiers lounging in the shade of a marula tree. It was too late to hide so we greeted them politely and walked on by. I was about to breathe a sigh of relief when the familiar, heart stopping call came: "Iwe!" We turned to find them beckoning us with their AK 47s. We knew that they were members of the dreaded Fifth Brigade because they were wearing red berets and they could not speak a word of Ndebele. We understood enough Shona to follow their orders.

They drove us ahead like goats, calling us dissidents and sell-outs and God knows what else. When Lawrence tried to reason with them they beat him with the butts of their rifles. In all there were eight soldiers. They took us to an army base at an abandoned primary school more or less in the opposite direction of our village, which is in Bulilima-Mangwe District. Here we were loaded on to the back of a truck with about fifty other captives and taken to a camp just off the main road, near Antelope Mine. At the time we did not know it but this camp, Bhalagwe, was the most notorious detention centre in the whole of Matabeleland.

The women were separated from the men and I did not see my brother again until the terrible incident in the drainage pipe. I shared a 12 X 6 metre asbestos shed with 135 other women and girls. There were no blankets. There were no toilet facilities. We were crowded like maggots in the eye socket of a dead donkey. Before I was taken as a "wife" by one of the camp commanders, my duties were to wash the soldiers- clothes and their cooking utensils, chop firewood, dig latrines, and prepare isitshwala for us detainees. It was dished up on dustbin lids with about 15 people per lid. We were allowed half a cup of water a day.

The ex-ZIPRAs had the worst of it. They were kept in a separate area with very low buildings, which had no windows, only ventilation slats. They were shackled all the time and were tortured much more than the rest of us. All day long graves were dug in the camp grounds, and when they were full, bodies were moved further afield and thrown into mine shafts. The screaming never stopped, and the stench of death never went away.

My parents taught us to stand up for what we believed in, for what we thought was right. Treat people the way you would expect them to treat you, my father always said, looking steadily at his son. Consequently Lawrence developed the courage of his convictions, a courage, which would do him no good at Bhalagwe camp. He was singled out as a trouble-maker and made to pay for it, and I was forced to watch.

A two metre asbestos drainage pipe was rolled in from the Antelope road. My brother was forced to climb into the middle of it. Two other men, one of them Neva, were told to back into either end. It was a tight fit! The two on either end were then ordered to come out and as they emerged, head and hands first, they were beaten with heavy branches, so they scrambled, panicking, back into the pipe. Again they were ordered to come out, again they were beaten, and again they retreated kicking and screaming into the pipe. This pattern was repeated until my brother had been kicked and crushed to death. It went on for hours. Neva and the other man had to bury my brother in a shallow grave, which Lawrence had already dug. That-s how the red berets and the CIO relieved their boredom: thinking up creative ways of humiliating and hurting us, the girls especially.

"Iwe!" I shouted at Mrs Moyo-s grandchildren, "get out of that pipe before I chase you out!"

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