BY LIZWE SEBATHA/NQOBILE BHEBHE
Gukurahundi survivor Charles Thomas still has vivid memories of the gruesome torture he suffered at the hands of the Fifth Brigade at the notorious Bhalagwe detention centre in Maphisa, Matabeleland South.
To this day, almost 40 years ago, Thomas still has visible scars on his legs and hands resulting from the barbed wire handcuffs.
Detained, chained and tortured for days, the liberation war veteran does not hide his untold anger at his tormentors and singles out the country’s top leadership that is accused of stoking and influencing the crimes against humanity committed at Bhalagwe during the Gukurahundi years.
“The torture went for days with our tormentors also denying us food and water,” he said.
“They tied our hands with barbed wire and brutalised us at that detention camp in Bhalagwe.”
Maphisa is one of the districts that bore the brunt of the Gukurahundi massacres.
In the district lies mass graves at the disused Bhalagwe Mine where victims were killed and their remains hidden.
Testimonies of the Bhalagwe torture victims are contained in the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) report titled “Breaking the Silence: Building True Peace, a report on the massacres in Matabeleland and the Midlands, 1980 – 1988”.
The CCJP report exposes the extra-judicial killings, multiple rapes of women, and people who were burnt alive in detention centres manned by the Fifth Brigade, a crack military unit trained by the North Korean army.
“My aching headache and the physical scars on my legs are a constant reminder of the torture. It is for this reason that I want to face the enforcers…,” said Thomas.
“It is also the reason why I want an apology and acknowledgement of the atrocities by the perpetrators.”
On May 25, Africa Day, Ibhetshu LikaZulu, a pressure group campaigning for the redress of the genocide, led a delegation that included chiefs Mathema and Fuyane in Bhalagwe where they unveiled a Gukurahundi memorial plaque.
The plaque was in remembrance of the countless victims tortured and buried at the Bhalagwe mass graves.
However, hours after the sobering ceremony, the plaque was vandalised and stolen on the same night by unknown people, the second such incident.
In February, 2019, Gukurahundi memorial plaques erected by Ibhetshu Likazulu were also destroyed.
Ibhetshu LikaZulu coordinator Mbuso Fuzwayo said they remained undeterred in their push to make Bhalagwe a Gukurahundi memorial site.
“Bhalagwe must remain a Gukurahundi memorial site to ensure that no one tampers with the evidence of the 1980’s mass killings,” Fuzwayo said.
“They (perpetrators) should know that we will not be intimidated or silenced.
“We will erect more plaques even if they continue destroying them like they have done.
“(The) government must acknowledge that this was a genocide and encourage truth telling; the surviving brigade commanders, and security officers that implemented the annihilation of their fellow countrymen must come out in the open, apologize, show remorse and seek forgiveness from the survivors.
“Any initiative without truth telling is empty,” Fuzwayo who has been arrested on countless occasions for his relentless call for Gukurahundi justice adds.
The late Robert Mugabe’s administration once initiated a probe into the Gukurahundi massacres, but the findings of the investigation by the Chihambakwe Commission of Inquiry were never published. Mugabe’s predecessor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has also kept the lid on the report tight.
To make matters worse, Mnangagwa, a State Security minister during the mass killings, has not offered any apology even as victims such as Thomas yearn for justice.
“I still have nightmares to date of that torture when many victims were being thrown into the disused mine, some while still alive and others dead.
“I yearn for the day when our tormentors will present themselves to tell us the crime we (had) committed,” Thomas said.
After assuming office in 2017, Mnangagwa tasked the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC) to address the emotive Gukurahundi issue, but activists and victims rejected the effort, demanding an apology from the government first before anything else could be done.
Mnangagwa has met with traditional leaders, civic groups and churches from Matabeleland to address the Gukurahundi issue.
However, the continued clamp-down on local civic groups involved in the Gukurahundi issue by state security details might cast aspersions on Mnangagwa’s sincerity to address the lingering matter.
*This article was originally published by The Citizen Bulletin, a nonprofit news organisation that produces hard-hitting, hyperlocal reporting and analysis for the southwestern region of Matabeleland.