Just three years after Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain, Robert Mugabe sent the army’s North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade into Matabeleland to crush dissidents and former guerrillas loyal to liberation war rival Joshua Nkomo.
Over the next two years, human rights groups estimate as many as 20,000 people died in western Zimbabwe, most of them ethnic Ndebele. The indiscriminate purge came to be known in the Shona language as Gukurahundi: “the early rain that washes away the chaff”. Zimbabwe’s opposition called it genocide.
Decades on, even after seizures of white-owned farms that triggered economic collapse, and campaigns of political violence that garnered far more international attention, it remains the darkest era in the nearly four-decade rule of Mugabe, who died on Friday at 95.
Many of the victims were executed, often after being forced to dig their own graves. Others were thrown down wells or disused mine shafts.
Rape, torture, mass beatings and wholesale destruction of villages were also commonplace, according to “Breaking the Silence”, a seminal 1997 report on the episode by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.
The killings met with muted international condemnation at the time, although researchers now say behind-the-scenes diplomatic pressure did lead to a reduction in the violence.
Many Africans contrast the lack of global outrage to the chorus of international condemnation of the 2000 invasions of white-owned farms.
Mugabe’s administration consistently denied reports of mass killings, presenting them as fabrications of hostile Western media.
However, after Nkomo’s death in 1999, Mugabe referred to the massacres as a “moment of madness”. In a 2015 interview with a South African talk-show host, he acknowledged that the episode was “very bad” but blamed it on renegade soldiers.
“Sometimes they go out of their way, you see, to hurt and commit acts which are outrageous,” Mugabe said in the interview. “We don’t want to talk about that, but it has a story which has not been told in full.”
According to Australian researcher Stuart Doran, recently declassified diplomatic cables show that Mugabe knew of the mass killings, with one minister reported to have said in 1983 that the Fifth Brigade was acting “under Mugabe’s explicit orders”.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was Mugabe’s security minister at the time and took over when Mugabe was ousted in 2017, has said Zimbabweans should speak more freely about Gukurahundi, to bring about national healing.