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.

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