THE international community abandoned Ndebele people in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, particularly Britain and United States they kept quiet and remained indifferent when thousands of Ndebele people were being liquidated by Zimbabwe government soldiers.
It will be recalled that between 1982 and 1985, at least 20 000 Ndebele people were slaughtered by the 5 Brigade while many more were left homeless, orphaned, crippled or bed ridden.
Their biggest sin was that they were Ndebele whose loyalty was with Zanu and leader Joshua Nkomo and a perceived threat to Zanu PF hegemony.
In July 1982 Prime Minister Robert Mugabe said: “Some of the measures we shall take are measures which will be extra-legal. An eye for an eye and ear for an ear may not be adequate in our circumstances. We might very well demand two ears for one ear and two eyes for one eye.”
During the first few months of 1983, the 5 Brigade did precisely that, killing many civilians suspected of aiding the dissidents.
Mugabe defended the actions of the 5 Brigade: “If you support dissidents, people are going to be killed, because this is war. Don’t cry if your relatives are killed in the process. It’s the price of supporting dissidents.”
A chilling example is the horror perpetrated in the village of Silonkwe in Kezi where an extended family of 24 was herded into their hut which was set alight.
I vividly recall more than 20 homesteads which were burnt to the ground one afternoon in Madubeko Ndlovu village. This is my home area, just a stone throw from the infamous Bhalagwe concentration camp where hordes were slaughtered with impunity.
Within a fortnight, stories were emerging in the British and American press reporting the widespread massacres, rape, torture and plethora of gross human rights violations.
When Jeremy Paxman visited the scene for (BBC Panorama), he emerged with a chilling picture and spoke of thousands dead. That was in March 1983. When Panorama went back in 1985, they were still unearthing mass graves.
One of the darker moments in the government’s campaign to suppress dissidents was the three-month curfew of 1984. The tactic of closing off a large section of the country and systematically starving the local population has not been used on a comparable scale before or since.
Thousands of civilians suffered from atrocities conducted by, on one hand by so-called dissidents and on the other hand by the government security forces.
According to the Africa Watch, often the 5 Brigade visited villages with lists of Zapu officials and sympathizers, who were singled out and killed.
Many of my relatives, friends and neighbours were abducted under the cover of darkness never to be seen again. A close family relative Paul Ncube disappeared in Donkwe – Donkwe area under mysterious circumstances.
Strangers arrived at his homestead in an unmarked vehicle took him and he never returned. Another local community leader Phillip Ngwenya was shot dead in front of schoolchildren and local villagers at Gubula Primary School. He was hurriedly buried within the school yard.
On February 3 1984, the Zanu PF government responded to what it termed “increasing infiltration” of South Africa-backed insurgents by imposing a tight curfew on Matabeleland South.
The curfew, originally from dusk to dawn, but soon extended around the clock, covered some 5 000 square miles from Beitbridge to Kezi to Plumtree and affected more than 400 000 mostly rural Ndebele inhabitants. Stores were closed, traffic stopped and residents prohibited from straying more than few metres from their homes.
In the middle of mayhem, anguish and trepidation Sydney Malunga, Zapu whip in Parliament remarked: “People live in fear because they fear they may be killed at any time. People live in suspicion because they fear that the Zanu youths will force them to buy Zanu cards. People live in fear of being harassed one way or another.”
Throughout this period, Britain had some 100 military trainers working with the newly integrated Zimbabwe National Army. Britain had a large diplomatic mission in the country.
Where was Britain when the Ndebele were being butchered? Wasn’t it the British high commission in Botswana which read Nkomo a statement from the Home Office in London pointing out that under the Fugitive Offenders Act, he might be subjected to deportation from Britain on a warrant of crime allegedly committed?
During his stay in Britain, there is incontrovertible evidence that high ranking government and Labour Party officials avoided Zapu leader Nkomo. The truth is the Tories tiptoed around Mugabe while the Labour Party regarded him as a fraternal ally.
In February 1983 when the first detailed accounts of the terror were appearing in the British press, Timothy Raison, Overseas Development minister, went to Zimbabwe and signed an aid deal worth (pound sterling) 20 million. Not even a widely reported terror of the food embargo the following year would prompt Britain to threaten cancellation of the aid.
Not long after massacres had finished and with Mugabe steaming towards a one-party State, Britain sold him Hawk 200 jets. Prime Minister Tony Blair would later obligingly sell him parts for the jets.
The tone was set by the Foreign Secretary Francis Pym. Asked about Matabeleland by William Deeds Francis in the Daily Telegraph on April 21 1983, Pym said he had made the British government’s concern very clear to Zimbabwe.
A succession of junior ministers would visit Harare in the period of slaughter: Cranley Onslow, Timothy Raison, Malcolm Rifkind and John Stanley.
The new foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, and late Margaret Thatcher would meet Mugabe at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit in Delhi, India, towards the end of the year.
A backbencher, Nicholas Winterton, asked vital question in the House of Commons in mid July 1983. Would the government, in light of massacres in Matabeleland, consider suspending British aid to Zimbabwe?
Sir Geoffrey replied that Britain was trying to establish facts and that it was his impression the situation had improved considerably in recent months.
Where was the mainstream of the Tory party when the Ndebele were being butchered? From Thatcher to Blair, Britain welcomed Mugabe. It gave him financial aid and weapons, it even allowed the commander of the 5 Brigade Perence Shiri to attend the Royal Collage of Defence Studies in London soon after his tour of duty in Matabeleland.
It is shocking although not surprising to find out that even British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in her much acclaimed memoirs, The Downing Street Years, conveniently avoided the ethnic cleansing in Matabeleland. She spoke glowingly of British financial and technical aid to Zimbabwe which exceeded 100 million pounds during the early years of Zimbabwe’s independence.
It will be noted that all these packages were extended to Zimbabwe at the time of gross human rights violations in the land.
The last British governor Lord Christopher Soames who presided over Zimbabwe’s transition period in 1980, in Hugo Young, Margaret Thatcher’s biography One Of Us, has a particularly trenchant line in retrospective justification.
He was fond of saying Mugabe’s victory was the best thing that could have happened, since Abel Muzorewa was “useless” and Nkomo would have let the Russians in.
Tamsanqa Mlilo, director at Mediation for Peace Centre, is human rights activist and social commentator