When the soldiers in the red berets arrived in Alice Mwale’s village in the fading light, they were not happy.
“They asked me why I wasn’t at the political meeting. They said I had run away,” says Mwale, holding a crutch in each hand as she speaks. She pleaded with them that she wasn’t from that village.
Mwale says a boy was passing by on his way from school and saw the soldiers arguing with her. He told them she was telling the truth.
In early 1983 in Matabeleland, in western Zimbabwe, whether you lived or died was often a matter of cruel chance.
“The soldiers got hold of me, moved me around, and threw me on the ground. And they said ‘you are lucky we didn’t kill you. We are going to show you who we are,'” says Mwale.
But Mwale wasn’t lucky; she says the soldiers broke her back. For 34 years she has had to live that trauma each waking moment. Even with the crutches, she can barely move around — hunched over at an unnatural angle to the floor.
Before her sons bought the crutches she would use sticks. Or she crawled.
Let bygones be bygones?
In just an extraordinary few weeks, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s autocratic leader for 37 years, was pushed from power by an apparent coup supported by thousands who took to the streets demanding Mugabe to go.
Emmerson Mnangagwa, the man who helped orchestrate the coup from hiding, was sworn in as interim president last Friday with all the pomp and circumstance that the occasion demands.
As Mugabe’s right-hand man for decades, he looked towards the future in his inauguration speech.
“We should never remain hostages to our past. I thus humbly appeal to all of us that we let bygones be bygones, readily embracing each other in defining a new destiny,” said President Mnangagwa.
But for Mwale and many like her, who felt the brunt of past abuses by government security forces, the message rings hollow.
“There is nothing we can do if those in power say we should forget. Yes, we might try to move on, but our hearts are still in pain. And we will continue talking about what happened,” she says.
In Zimbabwe’s southwest Matabeleland region, it’s often hottest right before the rains come. The heat breaks as an immense thunder shudders over the road northwest from Bulawayo.
In January 1983, a terror was unleashed on the villages and towns that dot this part of Zimbabwe. Mugabe called it “Gukurahundi,” a word in Shona, the country’s main language, meaning “the rain that seeps away the chaff.”
The North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade had been dispatched here to ostensibly deal with dissidents that threatened Robert Mugabe’s hold on the region. But researchers say that there were perhaps fewer than 200 armed dissidents.
The real victims were the civilians of the region. The brigade, largely made up of Shona youth, moved into Matabeleland and targeted mostly Ndebele, Zimbabwe’s second largest ethnic group.
They struck big towns and tiny villages. Tens of thousands were killed, though exact numbers are very difficult to estimate.
Extensive research published by the Catholic Commission for Justice in Zimbabwe in the 1990s details the extent and brutality of Gukurahundi.
The report exposes how people were gathered together and executed, pregnant women bayonetted, civilians thrown into mine-shafts.
“It was a genocide. And the reason the government doesn’t want this commemorated is that this is a loose thread that if pulled would unravel the entire garment,” says opposition Senator David Coltart, who was instrumental in the research.
At the time, the Zimbabwean government said that the operations where targeting dissidents who they said threatened the Zimbabwean state.
During the wave of terror, the head of State Security and the Central Intelligence Organization was Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Mnangagwa was already a feared figure in Zimbabwe known as Ngwenya, or the Crocodile, for his fearsome reputation.
At the time Mnangagwa said dissidents were the “cockroaches” and the Fifth-Brigade “the DDT.”
Coltart believes that Mnangagwa was intimately involved in the violence, but Zimbabwe’s new leader has repeatedly denied any involvement.
Heroes of Zimbabwe
Liphat Maposa was elated when Mugabe stepped down, but he is deeply troubled by the prospect of a Mnangagwa presidency.
He drives his mini-bus at a crawl and peers into the thicket of bush by the main road leading from Ntsholotsho. He is looking for a mass grave.
The graves are dotted throughout this district, one of the first to be targeted by the red-berets.
Maposa pushes through a thicket of thorn-bushes to a raised dirt grave with a simple cement headstone. The community etched out a message in the wet cement, “Amaqawe e Zimbabwe” — Heroes of Zimbabwe.
Maposa was eight when the soldiers attacked.
“My mother took us away and we stayed in the forest for three days because we were scared,” he says.
When they returned to the village, they found eleven bodies lying where they were murdered. “They could not stand the stench. That is why the villagers brought the bodies here and buried them.”
Maposa’s father used to work in Bulawayo in a factory. He came back to the village every weekend to be with his son. One day Maposa’s father vanished. He believes his father was abducted and killed, like so many others during that period.
There has been no public reckoning or official public enquiries in Zimbabwe about the Gukurahundi, so the allegations against Mnangagwa have yet to be proved or disproved.
But Maposa’s mind is made up.
“We cannot say we trust him as president, because he was involved in the killings. I did not go to school because my father was killed during that time. So for me to see Mnangagwa is President, I really don’t know what the future is like.”
Senator Coltart says Zimbabweans, particularly in Matabeleland, may be ready to move on if the new administration deals with the past head on, offers an apology, and provides communal reparations.
“Unless we deal with and admit our history and promise that it will never happen again, everyone here will fear that those tactics will return.”