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Marko PhiriJanuary 25, 2021
Robert Mugabe, who led Zimbabwe to independence from Britain in 1980 and then crushed his opposition during nearly four decades of rule, pictured in a Feb. 23, 2014, photo, died at age 95 on Sept. 6, 2019, in Singapore, where he often received medical treatment in recent years. (CNS photo/Philimon Bulawayo, Reuters)

For years, families of victims of mass killings and disappearances at the hands of government forces in Zimbabwe during the 1980s have tried to locate the remains of their loved ones for formal reburial. Described by some researchers as a genocide, the violence associated with the late Robert Mugabe’s Gukurahundi campaign continues to be a source of pain and emotional discord in a country where state-sanctioned violence has long been an aspect of power plays between political rivals.

Now, as a post-Mugabe government attempts to conduct the exhumation and reburial of victims of that violence, family members and human rights critics charge that the government is moving too quickly in an attempt to prevent a more thorough historical accounting.

While Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa has held several consultative meetings with civic groups and traditional chiefs to find common ground on the exhumations, critics say his government has not shown a commitment to fully address and account for the Gukurahundi. Ibhetshu Likazulu, a group of advocates representing Gukurahundi victims, has been on the forefront of civil society groups calling for accountability for the Gukurahundi massacres.

In a statement issued in November, the group criticized the government’s “rush” to perform the exhumation and reburial of the victims located so far. “Under no circumstances should there be any government-controlled exhumations and reburials of Gukurahundi genocide victims,” the group said.

Recent efforts by Mr. Mnangagwa’s government to rebury remains found in shallow graves have been criticized by families and activists who perceive the effort as a government ploy to silence families.

“We are therefore deeply appalled by the government position that is running straight to conduct mass exhumations and reburials, jumping all other steps that must, under all circumstances, come ahead of exhumations and reburials.”

Zimbabwe’s Catholic bishops commented on the controversy in August. In a pastoral letter, “The March Is Not Ended,” they warned that “unresolved past hurts like Gukurahundi...continue to spawn even more angry new generations.” The letter angered the Zimbabwe authorities who summoned the papal nuncio “to ascertain whether or not such statements reflect the official attitude of the Holy See towards Zimbabwe’s leadership.”

The B.B.C. reported that, like other government officials, Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa was scathing in her response particularly toward conference president Archbishop Robert Ndlovu, a member of the minority Ndembele ethnic group that had been targeted during the Gukurahundi, whom she called “evil minded.” She accused him of fanning ethnic division comparable to the role the church played during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

The opposition party MDC Alliance in turn called those comments "incendiary hate speech.”

“The singling out of a Ndebele archbishop...is discrimination on tribal grounds,” tweeted MDC Alliance spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere, who warned against reviving of Zimbabwe’s “history of genocide.”

Under increasing pressure to appease families of victims of the violence, Mr. Mnangagwa sought to steer a different course from his predecessor, bringing together government, families and activists to seek civil and familial closure. “In the Zimbabwean political space, few subjects are as contentious as the Gukurahundi historical conflict,” Nick Mangwana, a government spokesperson, told local media. “That subject was taboo, never to be discussed. But this position was turned on its head when that subject was opened up for public discourse” by Mr. Mnangagwa.

“The president’s move to finally address Gukurahundi and its surrounding trauma and controversies has been widely hailed as an important step in rebuilding the nation,” Mr. Mangwana said.

But that purported openness to an examination of the historical record has not been universally accepted by survivors, family members and victim advocates. Recent efforts by Mr. Mnangagwa’s government to rebury remains found in shallow graves have been criticized by families and activists who say they have not been consulted and perceive the effort as a government ploy to silence families.

A truth and reconciliation commission like the one used in South Africa to heal the wounds of apartheid “has been needed for a long time,” said Oskar Wermter, a Jesuit priest who has lived and worked in Zimbabwe for more than 50 years. The government has been reluctant to convene such a commission.

Those in power “are afraid of the truth coming out,” Father Wermter said. “The declarations of intent, of wanting to go back to Gukurahundi, are not honest. They will never do it. Not this generation who were responsible.” Maybe in the future a different generation not directly connected to the massacres will be willing to get to the truth of the violence, Father Wermter said.

“We have not heard anything from the government concerning trauma counseling all these years, and they want to come and rebury and then leave,” he said. “It just cannot work like that.”

At the time of the killings almost 40 years ago, Mr. Mnangagwa was a state security minister in charge of the deployment of security forces later accused of the mass killings. Critics say this explains the reluctance to make public findings by two commissions of inquiry launched by Mugabe in the early 1980s. It has been speculated that the reports exposed the involvement of current members of the Mnangagwa government.

According to the United States Institute of Peace, an independent research institute founded by the U.S. Congress, no official report was issued because the Mugabe government “argued that the publication of the report could spark violence over past wrongs.”

“Government has thus far demonstrated no commitment to putting in place appropriate, best practice, forensic anthropological and transitional justice processes to address this very sensitive topic,” said Piers Pigou, the southern Africa senior consultant at the International Crisis Group, a nongovernment organization based in Brussels. “It is evident that the state is keen on directing processes that in the circumstances it is not equipped to deal with.

“It is also inappropriate for those accused of complicity in Gukurahundi violations to be overseeing processes intended to address them. Only a truly independent and well resourced process will have any chance of delivering a credible victim-centered approach,” he said.

A Catholic priest stationed at a rural parish in Matebeleland, who had been arrested and beaten during Mugabe’s reign for organizing public meetings to discuss Gukurahundi, said there is little in the government’s current efforts that suggests sincerity. “Remember, discussing this matter has long been criminalized, so it is to be expected that people treat the current wave of public consultations with suspicion,” he said. He asked that his name be withheld.

At the time of the killings 40 years ago, Zimbabwe President Mnangagwa was a state security minister in charge of security forces later accused of the mass killings.

Since many families do not know how or specifically where their relatives died, some wish to perform traditional African burial rituals at mass graves already identified to allow the souls of their lost family members to rest, requests so far resisted by the government.

“Why are people being denied the right to perform [these rituals] or be part of the exhumations?” he asked. “We have been doing what we can over the years to assist families with trauma counseling, but it can never be enough if perpetrators are still roaming free and refusing to acknowledge the role they played. There is no hope then for restorative justice,” he said.

For survivors such as Lenin Hadebe, the whole affair seems a farce.

“We cannot have a situation whereby the accused person presides over his own trial. That is exactly what is happening and why Gukurahundi will not be resolved as long as these people are in charge,” Mr. Hadebe said. Mr. Hadebe, just 15 in 1983 when Gukurahundi forces reached his village, suffered machete wounds to his head and was forced by the violence to flee to neighboring Botswana. His parents and uncles were killed.

“We have not heard anything from the government concerning trauma counseling all these years, and they want to come and rebury and then leave,” he said. “It just cannot work like that.”

The Legal Resources Foundation, formed in 1985 at the height of Gukurahundi, conducted some of the first research into the violence with the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace. The investigation eventually found that more than 20,000 people disappeared in Zimbabwe’s Midlands and Matabeleland provinces during the violence. Other researchers place the number above 30,000.

Based on eyewitness testimonies, the C.C.J.P. report, “Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace,” documented incidents of victims being buried alive and the bayoneting of pregnant women. The report had been sent to Mugabe, but he never issued an official apology, instead famously dismissing the killings as “a moment of madness.”

According to historians, the Gukurahundi, a Shona word for the spring rains that sweep away dry-season chaff, had been in the making long before Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. The minority Ndebele tribe were largely seen as supporters of Mugabe’s main political rival at the time, Joshua Nkomo. The two men led competing factions in the bush war that led to Zimbabwe’s independence.

After independence, Mugabe began hunting down Ndebele “dissidents” and people accused of aiding and hiding them. His attack on disgruntled veterans of the bush war who fought under Nkomo evolved into a broad crackdown on political opposition. The Gukurahundi only came to a halt after Nkomo “agreed” to form a government of national unity with Mugabe in 1987.

Those in power “are afraid of the truth coming out. The declarations of intent, of wanting to go back to Gukurahundi, are not honest. They will never do it. Not this generation who were responsible.”

Civic organizations and faith-based groups have been on the forefront of providing counseling for survivors. Paul Muchena, the national director of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, said faith-based organization must not remain silent about Zimbabwe’s human rights record.

“Faith based organizations must continue to lobby the government to respect human rights and produce evidence backed information on human rights violations for advocacy and lobby,” he said at a time government continues to be accused of disputing evidence of Gukurahundi atrocities.

According to Mr. Pigou, who has worked with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and also with East Timor’s Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, in the absence of public hearings and confessions, the current process loses credibility.

Zimbabwe appears reluctant to follow Malawi, where newly-elected President Lazaraus Chakwera last year committed to the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission “to address the abuses of past regimes.”

Critics say that reluctance is because the alleged perpetrators are still in power, almost four decades later.

“The primary reason for the government avoiding an independent T.R.C. process is because this would limit its ability to control the process and related narrative. You cannot have a credible process where elements accused of complicity have political leverage over it,” Mr. Pigou said.

In October, activists filed a court application against the Zimbabwe government over the proposed exhumation and reburial of Gukurahundi victims, arguing that the current grave sites are crime scenes and as such the state is interfering with evidence.

As the new year begins, all signs point to the Zimbabwe government proceeding with the exhumations despite protests from survivors and pressure groups.

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