Somebody must be held responsible – Impunity in Zimbabwe

Robert G. Mugabe, President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, addresses the general debate of the sixty-fourth session of the General Assembly. 25/Sep/2009. United Nations, New York. UN Photo/Marco Castro.
Robert G. Mugabe, President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, addresses the general debate of the 64th session of the UN General Assembly in New York (UN Photo/Marco Castro)

Since Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain in 1980, the authorities have repeatedly committed massive human rights violations against their own people. The government has never acknowledged its role in these abuses, but the victims and their families are still having to deal with the consequences. Human rights activists charge that this is a result of Zimbabwe’s culture of impunity.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: June 21, 2000

The documentary was a finalist at the New York Radio Festivals in 2001.


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Somebody must be held responsible – Impunity in Zimbabwe”. The program is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

When Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, there was reconciliation. Black and white changed overnight from enemies to being co-citizens, and blacks did not exact vengeance. But it created a precedent for amnesty for political criminals. Impunity is not the way. Somehow, somebody must be held responsible.

The run-up to the parliamentary elections in Zimbabwe this weekend has been dominated by the seizures of white-owned farms. Supporters of President Robert Mugabe (1924-2019), led by so-called war veterans, have occupied hundreds of farms. Since the seizures began four months ago, over 2000 people have been beaten and tortured and 30 have been killed. No one’s been tried, nor is anyone likely to be. Politically-motivated crimes have gone unpunished since Zimbabwe’s independence 2 decades ago.

I, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Zimbabwe and observe the laws of Zimbabwe. So help me God.

Robert Mugabe became the first prime minister of Zimbabwe in 1980. He’d been one of the leaders of the long and brutal war for independence from Britain. Both whites and blacks committed numerous atrocities during the liberation struggle. Over 50-thousand people were killed. Robert Mugabe argued it was better to forgive and forget the crimes. The new nation needed to overcome its racial divide and the rivalry between the two main regions: Mashonaland and Matabeland. Many Zimbabweans agreed with Mugabe: impunity was the best way forward. At the time, Mugabe exerted an almost messianic pull on most people, including Michael Auret, who later became the director of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe.

Mugabe was seen as some kind of saviour. I myself would have given my life for him in 1981. I believed that he had brought to this country a period of peace that would be unique in Africa, in post-independent Africa. Not only that, in the regions other than Matabeleland, the development that took place in this country was truly dramatic. It never happened in a Third World country after independence that the huge increase in schooling, for instance, increase in health facilities, the extending of the roads and the communication links throughout the rest of the country. All these things were going on at the same time. So what you’ve got is a sort of Jekyll and Hyde situation where the people in Mashonaland first of all didn’t know what was going on in Matabeleland. All they read was dissidents: dissidents, dissidents, dissidents.

The so-called dissidents were a group of three to four hundred men in Matabeleland who took up arms a few years after independence. They felt that their region, in the west of the country, was being marginalised. Matabeleland is home to the Ndbele, who make up 20% of Zimbabwe’s population. Almost everyone else is Shona. Robert Mugabe also hails from Mashonaland. Mugabe wanted to sideline his main political rival, Josua Nkomo, an Ndebele, and create a one-party state. The dissident uprising gave him the perfect excuse to crush Nkomo and Matabeleland.

It was on the 8th of March 1983 when we were at school.

JJ was one of the many innocent victims of what have become known as “the Matabeleland disturbances”. JJ was attending secondary school, even though he was in his early 20s. Like so many other young Zimbabweans, JJ’s education had been disrupted by the liberation struggle. JJ will never forget the day they struck: they, the 5th Brigade, an elite unit trained by the North Koreans, answerable to Robert Mugabe.

We were just doing athletics and the 5th Brigade guys pounced on us. And they had whips, knobkerries and guns. They were demanding the whereabouts of dissidents and claiming that most of us were dissidents. They took the head boy and beat him thoroughly and killed him. That was the start of the massacre. They took us to the playground where all the children from the school – we were more than 300 from the school and primary school there were around 200 or so. They piled us together. There were more than 50 soldiers there. They would come from various angles and then squeeze into us, beating everyone. Then we would climb on top of each other, screaming and so forth and hitting each other. And they were laughing and enjoying. And then later on they separated us into small groups where for instance six soldiers would beat four boys until they were tired. And they would make us lie down and they will exchange using big sticks to beat us, and big, long locks and chains as well as ropes. They were even using knobkerries and using the butt of the guns and they were using the knives just to get it to penetrate through somebody’s body. And some girls were raped as some boys were looking and in some instances, they would then say boys should rape the same girls. And it was just traumatic.

Shrine for school children killed during Gukurhundi
Shrine for school children killed during Gukurhundi (© Eric Beauchemin)

This lasted from 10 o’clock to 5:30 or 6 o’clock. And at one instance, when they were really tired of beating, and we were made to queue. The commander took out a shotgun, and I was in front of the queue. And he asked as to whether there was anyone who would like to tell the whereabouts of the dissidents before we are all shot dead. Then instead of shooting me, five people were called to take me aside and make sure they deal with me thoroughly and kill me. When they took me aside, three took turns at a time to beat me. They beat me until I passed out. When I recovered, I only found out that there was one man, one soldier who was sitting on the log, and he was drinking water from a girl who was just passing with a packet full of water. Then now this girl is the one who told me that this soldier had said to her, he had remained just to finish me up. But now he said, already now I was dead and there was no need to do that. He took that girl for raping, and I survived just because of this girl. If at all this girl did not pitch up and there was no need to rape her, it means he was supposed to finish me up.

It took JJ over three months to recover from the attack. By then, growing numbers of people were knocking on the doors of Catholic priests, like Pius, who is now the Archbishop of Bulawayo.

Archbishop Pius Ncube
Archbishop Pius Ncube (© Eric Beauchemin)

In 1983 was the worst violence. They went about killing, rampaging, innocent people, people buried alive. People being axed to death. Soldiers would tell men and women to sleep on their stomachs and then they would trample on them. Sometimes they would shoot them from the back. Sometimes they would bring them together into a house, 30, 40 people, and then lock the door and burn them and they would perish and die in the house. It was certainly ordered from the top, and these soldiers went around saying, we’ve been sent. We are only doing our job. We’ve been sent and the president knows. And definitely the president did know what was going, at least the Catholic bishops told him straight-forward there were whole lot of atrocities were going on.

People in Matabeleland now say that the atrocities were even worse than those committed during the war of liberation. Because the government had imposed a state of emergency and a curfew, it was only much later that the full scale of the violence became clear. At the time, says Michael Auret of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, he and others were struggling to understand how the man who had led the country to independence – the man they thought of as a “saviour” – could have ordered the beating, torture and murder of so many innocent people.

It was only after we had produced our first report and the bishops had written their first pastoral on this issue which was Reconciliation is still Possible in 1983 that people began to understand that something was going wrong. But the enormity of it, even we didn’t know until much later. And so you have a clampdown on the media. And the people up here simply not knowing what was going on. And so this difficulty, I myself, as I say, I was very much in favour of the prime minister at that time. And it took me a very long time to begin to understand this duality, this schizophrenia, if you like. Now of course it’s easy to look retrospectively and say, well, we should have known. But at the time, to have suddenly another side come out was very difficult to understand.

The mounting criticism of the violence in Matabeleland forced Mugabe to pull out the North Korean-trained 5th Brigade. But Mugabe remained determined to create a one-party state. Large numbers of people were herded into detention centres, where many were tortured and murdered. Yet others – like John’s father – suffered the same fate in the presence of their entire community. The government’s aim was to inspire fear.

It took me almost about a week and a half to learn from other sources that the unexpected had actually befallen the family. People of course were scared to come up, point blank to tell you that, you know, so and so has been killed for the fear of being victimised also. It was when I was in town that I learned that my father actually had been killed. There was one other elderly person who was in there, who knew my father and it was through him that they knew he was actually late, he had been killed and put in this mass grave. And from the story that I obtained, it was actually the security forces that went and take him from the kraal. He was actually bungled into the truck. Did other people see this? It was the old lady. Your mother. Yeah, they did this in front of the old lady and she also got a bash. Till today she’s not even able to move up straight. Well, after that, no one had the guts of moving around the area or searching. We were left bitter and now that we couldn’t locate the place where these people were buried, so it was painful.

The first historical document that was written on this – Breaking the Silence – would only commit itself to those people it absolutely knew had suffered, which was thousands of people. But I think now figures tend to move more towards between 10,000 and 20,000 people died. And hundreds of thousands of people suffered in terms of beatings, property loss, illegal detention, and so on. Some prevalence studies that we’ve done are showing that more than 70% of people in Matabeleland were first-hand victims of torture, if we include witnessing of violence, for example, which internationally is accepted as being a form of torture.

Shari Eppel
Shari Eppel (© Eric Beauchemin)

Shari Eppel is the director of the Matabeleland-branch of the Amani Trust, a local human rights organisation. In the absence of official acknowledgement of the state-sponsored violence, says Shari Eppel, the Amani Trust has been trying to help the victims and survivors deal with the consequences of the events of the 1980s.

We find that there’s very high levels of anxiety and depression in Matabeleland in the rural clinics. Looking at the epidemiological studies that we’ve done, they’re frighteningly high. And very, very high levels of suicidal ideation, as well. We’re talking more than 90% of our clinically anxious and depressed survivors, people in Matabeleland have also actually been tortured. So it is a grim picture and many people are trapped in the past. Many people in the region were telling us that the problems in the region were because of the large number of angry spirits, which hadn’t had proper funerals and decent burials. And therefore, Amani decided that one of the things which we should be doing instead of just empathising with families who found themselves in this position, in the kind of classic Western mould of psychotherapy, we should get involved and start to find ways of exhuming the dead. Involving outside experts if necessary and to start enabling communities to have funerals and to settle their angry ancestral spirits and to have some degree of healing.

The vast, drought-stricken rural areas in Matabeleland are littered with the unmarked graves of those who were tortured and killed over a decade and a half ago. Since the government has refused to admit that it ordered the repression, the Amani Trust has had to work slowly and diplomatically to gain the confidence of both the authorities and the victims. I went along with two of the Amani Trust’s field workers to the site of one of the first unmarked graves they exhumed.

We’re at Mapane Primary School, and this is the second playground, children’s playground. It’s actually a football pitch. And in this point there was a guy who was killed by 5th Brigade in 1984, and he was buried in an ant-bear hole, you know the ant-bear, a small animal. But people in the community knew that he was actually buried here. Yes, what they would do is they said they were pursuing the dissidents. So in trying to pursue the dissidents, to follow up the dissidents that is, they would get to a place and call the community for information. People were not co-operating, you know volunteering out information, and they would try to use some other means to try to force the community to volunteer information. And by so doing they would torture this guy in front of them so that people would feel pity for this guy and maybe say you know a dissident in such or such a place. And in most cases, you would find that there were no dissidents around the area, and they had a political agenda more than a military agenda.

Reburied body of Edwel Ndcovu, Darlington's father
Reburied body of Edwel Ndcovu, Darlington’s father (© Eric Beauchemin)

What really brought the exhumation process is that the community was not happy in having the human remains in an ant bear hole where traditionally they bury dogs. On the other hand, children would sit on the grave without any knowledge that it’s a grave. And parents always felt really traumatised by this experience. The community felt that something has to be done about this grave. No one ever did any traditional rituals or religious rituals due to the fact that they feared coming close to this as it was the scene of a crime. And during the time this person died a lot of people suffered along him. Thus they felt they were part and parcel of him as well. Hence, in trying to mourn for the disappeared and those who died in similar circumstances, people came together and worked as a unity to try and console themselves. And it was a healing process going through this.

Darlington Ndcovu
Darlington Ndcovu (© Eric Beauchemin)

Even the children of the victims feel the need to come to terms with the events of the 1980’s. Darlington is now 20. He was 4 years old when two men in uniform entered his home and took his father away. Years later, when he was 15, his grandmother told him that his father had been killed. But even then, he couldn’t believe it. It was only when his father’s body was exhumed and reburied that he began to accept that his dad was gone forever.

I think the burial was good, but it was as if my father had died on that particular day. And I felt I had lost because I knew that if my father was alive, maybe I have done something better, or he maybe, he had done something better for me. So, on the day, I cried because I was remembering my father. I didn’t even know his face. When he died I was very young. EB: Your father’s grave is now right next to the homestead where you’re living. Do you go often to the grave to go speak to your father or think about your father? No, I don’t go there. Ever since he had been brought, I felt if I go there I feel like crying or whatsoever because I think if my father was alive. I was going to talk to him, this or that. So now he’s dead. So there’s nothing that he can do for me. EB: Do you feel any anger or hatred for what these people did to your father? Yeah, of course, because they killed him without any reason. They only took him from home and then they killed him.

The government’s refusal to acknowledge its guilt and apologise for the violence of the 1980’s has not only left people traumatised. It’s also created numerous practical problems, according to Shari Eppel.

The state is making it very difficult for families to get death certificates for those people which they themselves murdered. It’s quite clear that their agenda is that they don’t really want these certificates piling up as quantifiable evidence of what happened. But in the meantime, the lack of death certificates of course makes people’s lives very difficult. You can’t wind up in the state. You can’t inherit a pension. There’s an additional practical problem in Zimbabwe in that in order to get a birth certificate, a child needs either his father’s signature on the birth certificate application, or proof of his father’s death, in the event of him not being there to sign it. And also in Zimbabwe, many people do not get birth certificates until their children are of school going age. What this means is that there were thousands of children in Zimbabwe who were orphaned in the 1980’s, who did not have birth certificates, and whose fathers now do not have death certificates and so they can’t get the birth certificates. And these problems are even worse than the death certificate problems. Because without a birth certificate you can’t get into high school here because you can’t prove your age to be 13. You cannot get an identification card or a passport or a driver’s license or a marriage certificate because basically you do not exist as far as the state is concerned.

Zimbabwe’s tragedy is that the government continues to view violence as a means to remain in power. In the 1990s, resentment grew against the one-party state and mounting corruption. Mugabe, the saviour, continued to promise land reform, but most of the land that became available was distributed among his cronies. Reforms imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank exacerbated poverty in the country. In 1998, food riots broke out in Harare, and again, the government chose to use brute force to stamp out any opposition. And just like in the 1980s, many of the victims were innocent. Brian and his family were among them.

Brian Gadzikwa
Brian Gadzikwa (© Eric Beauchemin)

We never knew what was happening. The soldiers just came here when we were fast asleep. They started hitting us. How many soldiers came into the house? There were about, around 50 or 60 soldiers. They just broke in. EB: How many people were here in the house when the soldiers came? About 8. The whole family was present. EB: So the soldiers simply began beating you? Yeah, they began beating us. For nearly more than 3 hours. EB: They were beating you with sticks? Yeah, they were beating with sticks, and I was forced to lie on the floor. They beat me on my back. All of us were beaten. In the morning, we went to the police station to report about the matter and the police couldn’t help us. They just ignored us. EB: Did you or anyone in your family have to go to hospital or see a doctor because of the beating? Yeah, all of us, we went to the hospital. We had some bruises. I myself, I was beaten on the shoulder and my left hand and my head. They kicked us. I received some internal injuries. EB: How long did it take for you and your other family members to recover from the beatings? Nearly three months. I had to recover for three months.

We are still waiting for the case to appear in court. EB: Will it appear in court? Yeah, it was said so. EB: But even if they are convicted by the court, do you think that they will actually be punished? Actually I don’t know. EB: What would you like to happen? Since I was just assaulted, I myself like them to compensate me. EB: What type of compensation would you like? Since I was beaten for nothing, it’s like nearly for four months I wasn’t working, you see. I like them to pay for my medical expenses which I have spent. EB: Do you also want some type of apology from the authorities or from the soldiers who did this? Right now, it’s like I just all the people in the world to know that we were just assaulted for nothing. I’d like the government to compensate all the people who were beaten for nothing.

Acknowledgement, punishment and compensation are also likely to be the demands of the victims of the ongoing farm occupations by Mugabe supporters. But, despite intense media coverage and domestic and international protests against the farm seizures, little is likely to change as long as Robert Mugabe remains in power. The saviour, say growing numbers of Zimbabweans, has become a madman determined to remain in power at all cost, even if that means ruining his country. The roots of the current state-sponsored violence, says Shari Eppel of the Amani Trust, undoubtedly lie in the culture of impunity that has emerged since Zimbabwe achieved independence two decades ago.

Blanket amnesties are just clearly a mistake because they send the wrong message to the perpetrator. And this is sadly the message which people in Zimbabwe have now, that so long as your with the government, you can do whatever you like in terms of human rights violations and at the end of the day you will be pardoned. You will never be held accountable and we’re seeing this again now. We have a culture of impunity and this sends a very dismal message to torture survivors where they continue to suffer. They continue to be disempowered, to be poor, and to see those who tortured them be rich and in positions of power and never to be made to say sorry or to pay any kind of a price for the horrific crimes which they’ve committed.

It’s really painful. You can just forgive but then you cannot forget. That’s the truth. You may try and forget, but the more you try to forget, that’s the more you remember. Especially the after-effects are the major issues which keeps you remembering of the past. Like if you look today, I have the elderly lady down home. She has got no bread winner. I’m not working. She’s aged, but even aged, she’s no longer to fetch water like she would have done due to the beatings that she received during that time. It is actually during these times when I met her and look at her and find that she is looking rather lonely or she’s in a deep thought of some sort and I always think that when she’s in that mood, she’ll be thinking of my father. So the welfare being of her actually makes me not forget about the past. I don’t know whose orders they were acting upon, but I think it was just the actions of the maniacs. People who just come and butcher anyone without any profound reason.

As anger mounts against the government, growing numbers of Zimbabweans are openly criticising President Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party. Archbishop Pius, for one, is no longer afraid to speak out. It’s time, he says, that the president be punished for the crimes he’s committed against his people.

He should be tried, if he doesn’t apologise, if he doesn’t compensate the victims. They didn’t go after the dissidents, they went after innocent civilians. In certain cases, they were killing old men of 60, old women of 70. They were raping women in the same house. You find that a mother is raped with three or four daughters in the same room. So, you see, this was real crime against humanity, and unless he repents of it, he apologises and he takes steps that these communities are compensated and justice is done, then he should be tried.

Impunity has not been a major issue in the campaign for this weekend’s parliamentary elections. The government, the opposition and the general public have been more preoccupied with the farm seizures, the growing violence and the deepening economic crisis. But Michael Auret, the former director of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, is convinced that Zimbabwe will eventually exorcise its angry spirits to prevent them for haunting future generations.

The question of impunity is always one that is very difficult. People will harp back to the fact that there was reconciliation and that it worked. We took the first step, that was reconciliation. I think it was a very important step, but South Africa took a step after that into truth and reconciliation. And not a blanket impunity, so that certain people were tried and will be tried for what happened in apartheid. And I think that’s important. The world has got to find a way to end conflict without more violence. But impunity is not the way. Somehow, somebody must be held responsible.

“Somebody must be held responsible” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Peter Bos. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.