Britain has bloody hands in Zimbabwe - Africa - World - The Independent

Britain has bloody hands in Zimbabwe

Donald Trelford exposed Robert Mugabe's murderous methods 25 years ago, but couldn't persuade Whitehall to intervene

The baby was already dead, but the crowd weren't to know that. They gasped in horror as the soldier held it aloft and declared: "This is what will happen to your babies if you hide dissidents." Then he dropped the tiny corpse in the dust. That was Brigadier Phiri, known as Black Jesus, notorious head of the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade of the Zimbabwe Army, whose mission was to "cleanse" Matabeleland of dissidents.

There were no dangerous dissidents left, as his soldiers well knew, since the civil war had ended some years before. The myth provided them with an excuse to beat and torture villagers for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of the so-called insurgents. But, in reality, it was to intimidate and subdue the Ndebele tribe for supporting Joshua Nkomo, who had been Robert Mugabe's opponent at the general election before independence in 1980, four years previously. In 1987, after up to 400,000 of his people had been murdered in the pogrom that became known as the Gukurahundi ("the wind that blows away the chaff after harvest"), Nkomo gave in and merged his party with Mugabe's Zanu-PF.

It was 25 years ago this month that I stumbled on the first direct evidence that Mugabe was a monster who would destroy his own people to preserve his hold on power. It seems extraordinary that it took nearly a quarter of a century for the world to catch on.

I had gone to Zimbabwe to interview him on the fourth anniversary of independence. The interview itself was disastrously dull. He was implacable and uncommunicative. When I asked him if he would seek a political solution in Matabeleland, where a curfew had been in force for several months, he repeated a well-rehearsed mantra: "The political solution was the general election. They should have accepted defeat. The solution now is military."

When I returned, disappointed, to my hotel in Harare, I found some Africans waiting for me near the reception desk – they knew I was in the country because I had appeared on ZTV. They were nervous, looking over their shoulders.

"Terrible things are happening in Matabeleland," one of them whispered. "You must go to Bulawayo, to the Hilton Hotel. We will contact you." Then they slipped away.

I flew to Bulawayo, hired a car and drove around the apparently peaceful countryside. Matabeleland is cattle country: cows stood on the dry river bed; old men scratched the earth with hoes; goats, donkeys, marmosets, even a kudu bull, dashed across the road. Then I came to a series of road-blocks. I flannelled my way past a couple of them, then reached a no-go area, where my path was blocked by a truck-load of troops with rocket-propelled grenades on their AK-47 rifles. No journalists had been inside the curfew area since the emergency had been imposed 10 weeks before, though reports had trickled out that Mugabe's Shona troops were taking tribal revenge on the Ndebele.

Back at the hotel, I waited in my room until I heard a light tap on the door and a piece of paper was pushed under it. At midnight I was to go down to the hotel car park, where a van would flash its lights. I climbed into the van and off we went on a nightmarish nocturnal journey I shall never forget. Looking back, it amazes me that I wasn't more apprehensive: my companions were all strangers and nobody else knew where I had gone. The plan was to drive me down back routes into the curfew area to avoid the roadblocks. This seemed to be going well until we were halted by a policeman. It turned out that he just wanted a lift home, so he sat in the front while I hid in the back. Eventually we reached a crossroads, where we waited for ages until a car arrived and I got in. I was taken to a Catholic mission, where victims of Mugabe's purge had found refuge.

I was shown raw wounds from bayonets and electric torture, and women told me (interpreted by one of the priests) how they had been beaten and their husbands tortured and in some cases murdered; the bodies had been thrown down mineshafts.

I was taken to the site of a mass grave, said to contain 16 bodies. A man called Jason told me how he had hidden while the soldiers collected men from the fields or their huts and then marched them through villages until they were stopped and forced to dig a large hole, where they were shot dead as they stood in it. I went on to another mission, where many more victims described their experiences in graphic and sickening detail, including a woman whose two small children had been shot while running away.

Worse, much worse, was to happen in terms of rape, torture and intimidation over the next two decades, but the bulk of the killings were to happen in the next two years.

I flew back to Harare, where I told two people what I had seen. One was a military attaché at the British High Commission, who said they had feared as much but had been warned by the Foreign Office to stay out of it. The other was an old Afrikaner, who said: "Donald, you have discovered an eternal truth about Africa. You stuff them and then they stuff you. For decades the whites stuffed the blacks and now it's their turn. The Ndebele stuffed the Shona: now the Shona stuff them."

I published the story in The Observer, of which I was then the editor, and it attracted wide publicity – but not for the right reasons. I had hoped to alert the world to Mugabe's atrocities.

In the event, my scoop was sidetracked by a fight I then had with the newspaper's chairman, Tiny Rowland, whose company, Lonrho, had extensive business interests in Zimbabwe and who had an uneasy personal relationship with Mugabe because he had supported Nkomo.

I can see now that Rowland had to distance himself from the story for commercial reasons, though his methods seemed a bit extreme. I awoke on the Sunday morning to hear the main headline on the BBC news: a statement from Mugabe saying he had received an apology from Rowland, who had decided to sack me as "an incompetent reporter".

Then all hell broke loose, with newspapers and television cameras camped outside my door, and the battle raged on for weeks in a Fleet Street soap opera – "the most entertaining hullabaloo", as one paper put it, "since Rupert Murdoch fell out with Harry Evans." I survived, thanks to the support of The Observer's independent directors and journalists (though the latter's loyalty wobbled a bit when Rowland threatened to sell the paper to Robert Maxwell).

After Lonrho started cutting off our money supply, I offered my resignation to save further damage to the paper. This was the signal Rowland needed to climb down and we patched things up awkwardly over lunch in the incongruous setting of a casino he owned in Park Lane, served by long-legged beauties in fishnet tights. We concocted a ludicrous press release in which we said we had affection for three things: we loved Africa, we loved The Observer, and we loved each other.

Looking back, I regret that my personal battle with Rowland should have overshadowed such an important story. I had been the first external witness of the Gukurahundi. Mugabe escaped the opprobrium he deserved. It took another 18 years before Zimbabwe was expelled from the Commonwealth. Even now Mugabe seems immune to outside pressure. At the time the Foreign Office played down my story as "exaggerated". The British High Commissioner admitted later that he had been ordered "to steer clear of it" and at all costs to avoid offending Mugabe.

We should not be surprised, for British indifference to the plight of the Africans in Southern Rhodesia, and later Zimbabwe, goes back more than a century. Cecil Rhodes's company stole land and cattle from them without compensation – actions later sanctioned by the British government. In the 1950s, Britain set up the Central African Federation, including Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi), and allowed it to rule on a racist agenda ("the partnership of the rider and the horse", to quote its prime minister, Sir Roy Welensky).

We did nothing to prevent Ian Smith declaring unilateral independence in 1965, when we had the power to do so – I was there at the time and wrote a report, which I later heard had gone to a cabinet committee chaired by the Foreign Secretary, showing how we could end the rebellion.

My plan was rejected as too risky. The real reason, I suspect, was that Harold Wilson feared he couldn't send troops to Rhodesia without also helping out the Americans in Vietnam. Britain's paralysis ushered in 15 years of civil war that wrecked the country and brought Mugabe to power.

By 1980, Britain was glad to be shot of the problem and looked the other way while he nationalised the press, murdered his opponents and subverted the constitution.

We cannot dissociate ourselves from the resulting disaster: a country with the world's biggest inflation rate and fastest sinking economy, riddled with Aids and cholera, where a quarter of the population have fled the country, including 90 per cent of its graduates and most of its doctors and nurses, where only one in 10 has a job and 75 per cent go hungry in what was once the second-richest country in Africa.

Rebuilding Zimbabwe after Mugabe will be a monumental task: restoring the rule of law, the economy, democratic institutions, a free media, an independent judiciary and protection for human rights.

Britain has such a huge historic responsibility for the country's plight that we ought to make it our duty to lead this reconstruction. On second thoughts, however, we have made such a shameful mess of its past that it might be better if we kept away.

News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
News
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
SCIENCE
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
art
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
News
Kenny G
news
News
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £55 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Teaching Assistants urgently r...

Primary Teacher

£85 - £135 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: The Job:We are looking for a ...

Primary Teacher

£85 - £135 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education is the UK ...

KS1 Teacher

£80 - £100 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Key stage 1 Teacher - Gloucest...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week