By Thandekile Moyo
At a memorial service of the 21 women and a man who were burnt to death in 1983, community members and chiefs said the Gukurahundi genocide was a part of our history that should be remembered “so that in future we say never again should such a thing happen. It will act as a reminder even to future governments and generations to say this is part of what our country went through and it must never happen again.”
The road to Tsholotsho’s Mkhonyeni village, if I can even call it a road, tells a story of neglect, marginalisation, injustice and dehumanisation. There is no road basically. We drove through a narrow pathway between trees in a dense forest. I remember asking myself, “So the Pumas (army trucks used in the Gukurahundi genocide) drove on this ‘road’?”
They must have felt like they were hunting animals. So remote is the area that even today, 41 years after Zimbabwe’s independence, I felt like I was on a game drive. It is unthinkable that in that forest there are hundreds of people, and in that forest lies an unknown number of mass graves. If this were a movie, everyone would have been evacuated and we would have a yellow ribbon around the entire district of Tsholotsho, inscribed “police line, do not cross” — because Tsholotsho, from what I witnessed and gathered, is a crime scene.
On May 16, Ibhetshu LikaZulu, a non-governmental organisation that pursues justice for victims of the Gukurahundi genocide, held a memorial service for 21 women and a man who were burnt alive at a homestead in Tsholotsho, by the Zimbabwe national army on March 16 1983.
Kossam Ndlovu, son of one of the women burnt to death, explained how the Fifth Brigade soldiers rounded them up and took them to the bush where they interrogated them about “dissidents”. The soldiers then noticed that there were no young girls in the group and they asked where the girls were? One of the villagers then explained that the girls had been told to run away. This apparently angered the soldiers who then beat up everyone. They then frog-marched the adults back to their homesteads and locked the 22 in a room and set it alight.
Another speaker, Thabani Dlamini, whose mother, Gogo Mabhena, managed to escape from the fire, explained how they (the children) were saved by a soldier who said “the children know nothing, leave them”. They were then left under the guard of some soldiers as they watched their parents and older sisters being taken away.
Thabani said they heard screams from the hut and saw smoke rising from the direction of the homestead. He says they also heard several gunshots and saw someone running from the direction of their home, later identified as one of the women who survived. She bolted from the burning hut when the door caved in and the soldiers shot at her as she was escaping and missed.
She is still alive, but has migrated from the area. She sent her son to represent her at the memorial service as she is old and unwell.
Thabani described how after the massacre, several soldiers went back to the children and took the older children with them to the crime scene where they found bodies of some of the women strewn all over the yard. They had apparently been shot as they tried to escape from the fire. The soldiers are said to have instructed the older children to drag the bodies into the hut. Afterwards, the soldiers are said to have told the children to go and find their relatives as they were now orphaned.
Nomathemba Matshazi, another woman who survived the arson, was at the memorial and has a scar on one of her eyes which looks like some flesh was shaved off. She explained that it was from a gunshot.
She said she and her seven-month-old baby were among the people who were locked in the hut that was set ablaze. She said on the day, the soldiers descended on their home and forced them out of their yard to a place where they found many people who had been taken from their homes. Once there, she says they were questioned about “dissidents”. After the questioning, they were taken back to the homestead and bundled into a hut. She explained that the other huts had been burnt while they were being interrogated.
Nomathemba explained that many of the women were holding their babies, so those who had no babies fought to break down the door and eventually succeeded. They ran out of the blazing heat and the soldiers fired at them. She said one of the women who was shot and killed, Juliet Moyo, was pregnant.
Nomathemba said they shot her and she became unconscious, but by some miracle, she did not die. When she regained consciousness, she no longer had her baby. She said she did not know what happened to her baby, but suspected she might have fallen into the fire when she was shot. She said she hid in one of the burnt huts fearing the soldiers would come back. She added that the next day she crawled to her aunt’s home, only to discover her aunt had been stabbed to death. She said other villagers managed to find her and took her to the bush where they all hid for two months.
In a display of solidarity, five Matabeleland chiefs attended the memorial service — Chief Khulumani Mathema of Gwanda, Chief Dakamela of Nkayi, Chief Tategulu, Chief Gampu and the local chief, Chief Siphoso Dlodlo.
Chief Mathema said it was sad that women were massacred mercilessly in the genocide. He said as representatives of the people they were affected more because they were also affected in their individual capacities.
“We are insulted as Ndebeles that we are uneducated, but we all know it is because of Gukurahundi,” he said.
He made reference to a speech by one of the family members who had spoken earlier, saying if his parents had not been murdered on that fateful day, maybe he would have gone to school.
He said because he was uneducated and unemployable, it was unlikely that his children would be educated as he has no means to educate them.
Chief Mathema said the people of Matabeleland had the responsibility to fight for justice for victims of Gukurahundi.
He said what happened in Matabeleland during Gukurahundi was terrible and there was need for truth-telling and reconciliation.
He said the people of Matabeleland were scattered all over because they ran to neighbouring countries and never came back.
Chief Mathema said there was a leadership vacuum when it came to addressing the genocide issue because there was need for an authority to resolve the issue, and that initiative should not be led by the perpetrators or people from other countries, but by the victims.
The chief said Gukurahundi “did not come and go, it did not stop killing us, it is killing us still and if we are not careful we shall all perish. Gukurahundi must be addressed as it is cancerous.”
Chief Dlodlo explained that the atrocities were committed on March 16 1983, but this was the first time they had managed to grieve. He said it was impossible to grieve at the time with guns at the backs of their heads.
He said if people looked at the number of people who were murdered by the soldiers between January and March 16 1983, they could appreciate the scale of the atrocities. He said it was unthinkable that human beings could commit crimes as heinous as those committed at that home.
“What kind of people lock people in a room and set it alight?” he asked.
The resident chief expressed gratitude to the visiting chiefs and said he was happy they joined him in his grief. He told the villagers that he was determined to stand with them in their fight for justice over Gukurahundi. He said the government needed to take responsibility and make reparations by educating and developing affected communities. He said it was important for the people of Matabeleland to unite.
Chief Dlodlo said the Mkhonyeni village community had committed to turn the site into a museum in a bid to memorialise the victims and to educate future generations about what happened.
He also said they had agreed to commemorate the month of March every year.
Mbuso Fuzwayo, the founder of Ibhetshu LikaZulu said it was important for communities to be given space to commemorate and mourn. He urged the government not to tamper with the plaques at the site as it had to understand that they had a purpose. He said Gukurahundi genocide was a part of their history so it was important to have the plaques so that in future they could say, never again should such a thing happen adding that it would act as a reminder even to governments and future generations to say that was part of what the country went through — and it should never happen again.
Fuzwayo said this because on 28 February 28 2018, Ibhetshu LikaZulu was shocked that after erecting a plaque in honour of genocide victims at Bhalagwe concentration camp, State agents destroyed the plaque and threatened villagers.
- Thandekile Moyo is a writer and human rights defender from Zimbabwe. For the past four years, she has been using print, digital and social media (Twitter: @mamoxn) to expose human rights abuses, bad governance and corruption.
- This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick