HomeOpinion & AnalysisLet’s compile register of the dead in all our conflicts

Let’s compile register of the dead in all our conflicts

Real deal: WITH GEOFFREY NYAROTA
January 1977 was the worst of the several months when I personally endured the ravages of the war for the emancipation of Zimbabwe from the toxic grip of rebel leader Ian Douglas Smith’s Rhodesian Front regime.

My ordeal started on my birthday, the very first day of 1977. I was arrested by the dreaded Special Branch on allegation that I had transported in my car the group of Zanla guerrillas who bombed Nyazura Police Station on the night of the last day of 1976. During the night of my fourth day of incarceration in Rusape Prison there was an extended commotion around midnight behind our remand prison cell. Thereafter, there was a pungent stench that wafted into our cell and rendered sleep totally impossible for the 36 prisoners packed therein.

As we emerged from the cell early in the morning to have breakfast, we were shocked by the sight that we beheld. A grotesque pile of dead bodies met our gaze against the wall. We, rather I, counted a total of 16 of them when instructed to do so by Detective Inspector Phillip Mhike of Special Branch, Rusape. Some were mutilated beyond recognition by gunshot wounds, while others had broken skulls, with brains spewing out. The bellies were ripped open on some, while the intestines flowed outside the bodies.

The dead bodies had been transported by the army in trucks from the Chigondo area of Hwedza district, where a detachment of Rhodesian soldiers surprised villagers who were engrossed in a pungwe or all night meeting in the company of Zanla guerrillas. Among the bodies were two whose clothing testified that they were Zanla fighters.

Mhike ordered me to take charge of the restoration of a semblance of order to the stinking pile as a prelude to taking finger-prints. The bodies were then ferried to be buried in a mass grave on the outskirts of the town. After independence local politician Didymus Noel Edwin Mutasa, then fiercely powerful, was quoted in the press as having discovered the mass grave. He made assurances that the bodies of the victims of the Chigondo Massacre would be accorded a decent burial.

I doubt that this ever happened.

As for the people of Chigondo I doubt that they ever found out what became of the relatives who were massacred around January 4,  1977. Neither did they ever inquire about the whereabouts of the deceased or seek any form of compensation for loss of kith and kin butchered by the Smith regime, along with thousands of other innocent rural civilians throughout Zimbabwe.

In an article which appeared in The Washington Post on September 2, 1979, under the headline, “Many die over the fate of a few in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia”, Jay Ross, an American journalist, suggested that at the material time the country’s bush war was certainly taking a much larger toll than the government admitted publicly, with as many as 100 people killed every day.

The official overall death toll in the guerrilla war that had ravaged the countryside for five years since late 1972 had mounted to more than 17 000 by July 1979.

“But it is hard to find people outside the government who believe the figures,” said Ross. “A wide variety of sources say as many as 100 persons are dying daily in the war or from war-related causes. The vast majority are blacks, either civilians or members of the Patriotic Front guerrilla forces based in Zambia and Mozambique.

“Considering that the war revolves mainly around the status of fewer than
250 000 whites, it is a conflict in which many are dying over the fate of a few.”

The government’s own official figure stood then at a total of fewer than 200 persons being killed per week. This figure excluded the thousands killed outside the country during cross-border raids mounted by the Rhodesian Air Force. Ross concluded that if the estimate of 100 casualties per day was anywhere near the correct figure, then a total of about 35 000 persons were being killed annually.

In their files, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP), which was a long-term thorn in the side of the Smith regime, maintained meticulous records of atrocities. The commission’s files were replete with allegations of brutalities committed on innocent civilians, not only by the guerrillas, especially Zanla, but by the Rhodesian security forces, as well as by the auxiliary forces of Bishop Abel Muzorewa’s UANC party. The auxiliaries fought on the side of the government and were particularly notorious for the ruthlessness of their treatment of the rural population.

John Deary, head of the CCJP, was reported as having said that if his organisation were to follow up on every report of atrocity committed “we’d be digging up shallow graves for three months at a time”.

Of all these victims of senseless mass killings, such as those of Chigondo, there was never any compensation to relatives after the Lancaster House Agreement brought peace to Zimbabwe.

But, back in January 1977, I was still recovering from injuries inflicted on me by Mhike and Special Branch colleagues when I arrived back at Regina Coeli. This was a secondary school close to the Mozambican border, where I was a young teacher. My return was two days after opening day for the first term after my dreadful three-week sojourn in Rusape Remand Prison.

A day after my arrival back at Regina Coeli, a most distressing report reached my ears.

My close friend, John Dembaremba, the popular headmaster of Kagore Primary School, six kilometres north of Regina Coeli, had been brutally murdered by a detachment of Zanla guerrillas. As happened in hundreds of similar cases those days, not only was the deceased not accorded an opportunity to defend himself against whatever charges were brought against him; he was also denied a decent and timely burial. His body remained where he fell, right in front of his house for two full days.

Family and fellow teachers who witnessed his brutal execution, endured two days thereafter, while observing his body deteriorating in the summer heat of Nyamaropa in their midst.

His crime?

Zanla informers, or vana mujibha, as they were called by terrified villagers all over the war-ravaged rural areas, had informed the guerrillas that Dembaremba was a sell-out.

That was it.

Someone just had to whisper in the ear of a guerrilla that you were a mutengesi and that became your death sentence. Execution was instantaneous. Around 50% of the 100 war victims who perished per day around September 1979 died in such circumstances of injustice. None of the surviving relatives of those victims were ever compensated after independence.

I believe sincerely that the word mutengesi or the slogan “Pasi nemutengesi” (Down with the sell-out) should be effectively banned from the lexicon of the Shona language of Zimbabwe.

A little over six months after the barbaric Dembaremba fiasco, Ernest Mutizamhepo, the mission catechist and school soccer trainer, was abducted from Regina Coeli one evening. Comrade Joboringo, the detachment commander of a new group recently arrived from Mozambique, had demanded that the catechist accompany the guerrillas back to their base that night in a hill not far away from the mission.

The following day a mujibha knocked on my back door. It was however, only to deliver a shopping list for supplies required at the guerrilla base. I drove to a nearby township in the company of three school boys. On arrival at the foot of the hill the school boys carried the cartons of groceries up the hill to the base, where we found Joboringo holding court.

Among the supplies that we purchased was a 750 milli-litre bottle of a popular brandy, whose rapid consumption instantly livened up spirits in the camp. It was passed from hand to hand among our hosts, who took it neat. Sitting forlornly on a log in the middle of the make-shift camp was none other than the missing soccer trainer, Mutizamhepo, looking visibly miserable.

Naturally, I sat next to him.

Our sudden arrival in camp appeared to have been a source of considerable relief to him. But Joboringo suddenly focused on him and accused him once more, apparently, of being a sell-out.

Mutizamhepo started to mount a defence. But that was a fatal miscalculation.

Joboringo reached for his AK rifle, cocked it and shot the catechist right in the middle of the forehead. Blood and brains splattered all over my clothes as the catechist slumped over and emitted his last breath.

Many years later, in 2020, after I narrated this gruesome episode in my book, Against the Grain, I was introduced to someone from a Mashonaland East town. He took me aside and whispered that War Vet Joboringo had been expressing what appeared to be a genuine desire to meet me.

But back in Nyazura, my rural home in 1977, my uncle, John Mwanandimai, a successful and, by village standards, prosperous market gardener, and his wife had their hands bound before they were thrown into their kitchen hut. It was then set alight. They perished as they screamed in the towering inferno. Meanwhile, their granddaughter was beaten to death and buried in a shallow grave.

A jealous neighbour, one Gede Makoto, who was a notorious mujibha, had reported Uncle Mwanandimai to be a mutengesi. Many other innocent villagers in the area were reported to be alleged sell-outs. They included Kraal-head Matukutire and his wife, who were also thrown into their hut before it was set on fire. Headman Rukweza was butchered ruthlessly. Some of the alleged sell-outs were reported to have been identified by mujibhas on the ground as they sat on a spotter plane or a helicopter while making indications below them.

Then there was the very heart-rending case of businessman, Robin Maenzanise, and his grandson. They were both shot dead by government soldiers as they drove past his shop at Gwangwadza Township near Nyazura in a convoy.

All these names and details come to mind without resort to any research.

I am currently thinking of spearheading a project to compile a publication that will list the names of all the innocent people of Makoni District who were killed by both sides during the war of liberation. That is the greatest honour we can bestow upon those who paid for our liberation with their own lives. That would perhaps be a far greater honour than whatever amount is disbursed to their squabbling relatives.

Properly managed, the project could be extended to cover the whole of Zimbabwe. The identity of every villager who perished, especially in Matabeleland, can surely be established. I would be happy to spearhead a fund-raising project in the national interest among patriotic captains of industry and commerce, as well as the usual foreign donor community for this very worthwhile initiative with potential to unite all the citizens of our nation.

The voluminous publication would include the names of those sons and daughters of Zimbabwe who perished in the cross-border raids into Mozambique and Zambia.

Later on, the dissident war, otherwise known as Gukurahundi, divided Zimbabwe virtually along ethnic lines after independence. Unlike in the case of the other political conflicts of Zimbabwe, victims or their relatives in Matabeleland have demanded compensation. As a result, long after the signing of the Unity Agreement between Dr Joshua Nkomo’s PF-ZAPU and President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF, the issue remains defiantly unresolved. In the process some activists have made a killing for themselves, while claiming to be campaigning for justice and reparation.

Not to be outdone, opposition politicians have also sought to make capital from the suffering of those whose relatives fell victim to Gukurahundi. As 2023 approaches it is likely that they will descend once more on the now wary citizens of Matabeleland with more false promises of compensation for the massacres.

Rather suspiciously they do not campaign on behalf of those who lost life or limb during the notorious State-sponsored Operation Mavhoterapapi violence which left more than 300 opposition supporters and activists dead in the north-eastern regions of Zimbabwe in 2008.

Let us imagine, for a while, that Muzorewa’s UANC party had won 20 seats in Parliament representing Manicaland Province back in 1980, while Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU secured a paltry three seats in Matabeleland. The UANC’s auxiliary forces would then have been incorporated into the new Zimbabwe National Army, with ZIPRA being left out in the cold. Imagine the situation if Muzorewa had then been kicked out of government after a huge quantity of arms was discovered up in the Vumba Mountains, with his auxiliary forces effectively deserting en masse from the national army to seek refuge all over the mountains of the Eastern Highlands.

Gukurahundi would surely have pitted the people of Manicaland, against the government of Mugabe. Soldiers from Matabeleland would probably have been conscripted into Five Brigade, and thousands of innocent citizens would have been massacred, despite the fact that both Mugabe and Muzorewa are both of the Shona ethnic group.

“I am happy that no one has silenced me in lobbying that pre-independence civilian deaths should be attended to by government,” says Dr Dennis Magaya in a post on social media this week. “The culprits must be brought to book, including comrades, Rhodesians and British.

“As such government has to take a holistic approach and deal will all civilian deaths pre- and post-independence in a consistent, fair and transparent way.”

Dr Magaya is the son of the late Cde Soul Sadza, who is believed to be the first and only member of the Zanla High Command to die in battle on Zimbabwean soil.

He has spent many years looking for his late father’s remains and has taken great interest in how Zimbabwe can address issues of pre-independence war-related civilian deaths and those fighters whose remains still lie in shallow graves.

As for me, I proceeded to be arrested on a total of more than six occasions on spurious grounds on account of my work as an investigative journalist in independent Zimbabwe. The Central Intelligence Organisation, the successor to the Special Branch, even made an attempt on my life.

Meanwhile, Detective Inspector Mhike formerly of Special Branch, who tortured and humiliated me in Rusape Remand Prison as he fought to sustain the racist regime of Ian Smith, was rewarded rather magnificently after independence. He was promoted to the lofty position of Senior Assistant Commissioner Phillip Mhike of the Zimbabwe Republic Police.

On retirement he was appointed to the board of directors of the struggling Air Zimbabwe, the national airline.

Geoffrey Nyarota is an award-winning investigative journalist and founding Editor-in-Chief of the original Daily News. He can be contacted on: gnyarota@gmail.com

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