What happens if you don't support Mugabe

Zimbabwe's approaching election is awakening savage memories
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The Independent Online

In the bleak, remote landscape of Matobo, people know what happens to those who are in two minds about supporting Zimbabwe's ruling party. They starve to death or are beaten, raped and tortured. This is what happened in the southwest of Zimbabwe in the 1980s. Then, at least 10,000 people died so that Zanu-PF could assert its power.

So, Lovemore Muthe Moyo knows he faces a formidable challenge, standing as the opposition Movement for Democratic Change's (MDC) candi- date in Matobo in the parliamentary elections due to be held this summer. Not only is his personal safety threatened by the ruthless ruling party but the minds of his future potential constituents are filled with fear.

"We do not want to think of what happened here. I myself witnessed beatings, rapes and brothers being made to fight one another. Those memories, we suppress them because they bring forth a lot of unanswered questions and suspicions," said the 35-year-old financial adviser.

In the centre of Matobo district lies Bhalagwe concentration camp, occupied as late as 1987 as part of Robert Mugabe's campaign to crush the rival liberation movement, Zapu. Local people have demolished some of the camp buildings where the worst atrocities were committed on thousands of people, but several are still standing, like grim monuments to fear. There are unmarked graves containing an untold number of bodies.

Now, says the MDC, President Mugabe is unleashing the same intimidation tactics he used in Matobo and the rest of Matabeleland on the country as a whole - murders, beatings and "re-education camps". Eighteen people have died since February and hundreds have been beaten - not just white farmers, their staff and MDC supporters, but also teachers and other influential figures in rural areas.

According to Gibson Sibanda, vice president of the MDC, there are strong parallels between the 1980s massacres in Matabeleland, known in the language of its Ndebele people as the Gukaruhundu (the spring rain that washes away the chaff of the winter season) and Zanu-PF's current intimidation, aimed at securing power for another five years.

"They are saying they will bring back the Gukaruhundu and the tactics are exactly the same. They attack and kill, they ransack places to find party cards and campaign material - just as they did against Zapu," he said.

There are differences between Zapu and the MDC. Zapu had its own armed liberation movement, Zipra. Together with Zanu's military wing, Zanla, it fought a long war to end white rule in 1980. Zipra's main base was in Matabeleland, the kingdom of the Ndebele people. Zanu, however, which was strongly supported by Mozambique, drew its support from the Shona people of Mashonaland, of whom President Mugabe is one.

When Zanu wanted to crush Zipra in the mid 1980s, it could claim dissidents with arms caches were destabilising the country. Such was Zanu's fear of its former liberation ally that President Mugabe renewed states of emergency in Matabeleland every six months between 1980 and 1990 - enforced by its special terror unit, 5 Brigade, trained by North Korea.

The MDC, on the other hand, is a young party, formed only last year and born out of the churches and trade unions. It is multi-racial and multi-ethnic. "It is great," said Mr Muthe Moyo. "The leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, is Shona but the vice president is Ndebele and we have whites among our membership, too. The party is truly representative, which is important, because there is strong discrimination in Zimbabwe against the Ndebele people."

Zapu was subsumed into Zanu after an accord was reach- ed at the end of Gukaruhundu in 1987 between Mr Mugabe and the late Joshua Nkomo. Today, Zimbabwe's three million Ndebeles are divided.

"People are hungry for change, especially the young voters," said Mr Muthe Moyo. "But Ndebeles are quite conservative. Our tradition is to be ruled by a royal family, and we gave Dr Nkomo the position of a king. It takes a while to win the support of Ndebele people but once you have, they are loyal and dedicated."

Mr Muthe Moyo, who hails from Matobo, stands a good chance. He knows his constituency and its 115,000 population: commercial farms in the north and a national park; two-thirds of people living on poor drought-prone communal lands; heads of families working in South Africa; zero infrastructure; clinics without drugs or doctors; no libraries and bad schools.

"It has always been hard for us. The communal lands are of the poorest variety and the people there know the meaning of famine." They also know the meaning of Gukaruhundu, he said, and are living in fear and uncertainty about their future,

President Mugabe, after years of denial, has agreed to pay compensation to families of those who died, though the government has never acknowledged how many were killed, nor issued death certificates for those who disappeared.

But Mr Muthe Moyo is dismissive: "What is compensation? It cannot bring back a mother, a sister or a brother. What we will build is a national shrine to all those people who died because they were Ndebele, loyal to Dr Nkomo or Zapu." The MDC also has plans for a truth commission which will help secure the victims' place in Zimbabwe's history.

As yet, the Matabeleland massacres have not been properly recorded and mass graves are still being discovered. Only one study, called Breaking The Silence, drawn from information gathered by rural Catholic missionaries, provides a real insight. The chapter on Matobo makes chilling reading.

It describes Bhalagwe as "the most notorious" concentration camp, where 5,000 people were detained at any one time. Here, digging graves was a daily chore and 5 Brigade played sadistic torture games with the men, women and children who were incarcerated for weeks or months on end.

Young women were taken as "wives" by the soldiers. Others were raped, with sticks. It was here that a woman, in 1983, was made to eat the flesh of her dead child. Men had their testicles bound with rubber strips and beaten. Some were made to push vehicles with their heads, then beaten for bleeding on government property.

In his office in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city, Mr Sibanda has his own memories of the terror of the 1980s when he was active in Zapu. But he is optimistic that the MDC supporters will not be cowed. "Our candidates and supporters are being targeted. But I think Zanu-PF realised too late how powerful the MDC has grown. The horse had bolted before they started to try to rein it in."

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