Zimbabwe's former minister of information and publicity, Jonathan Moyo, intends to move a bill seeking to provide justice for the massacre of more than 20,000 members of the minority Ndebele ethnic group by Zimbabwean security forces nearly 20 years ago.
Government officials have been dismissive of the proposed bill, citing the fact that it came from a former ally of President Robert Mugabe who was sacked in 2005 for his role in organising resistance to Mugabe's succession plans. They have also said the bill threatened to undo a peace accord signed in 1987 to end a five-year reign of terror in the southern provinces of Midlands and Matabeleland by Zimbabwean soldiers of Five Brigade, who were trained by North Korea.
Gukurahundi, meaning 'the first rains of the season which wash away all the chaff' in the Shona language, was the name given to the operation that began two years after Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980, following the liberation war against the white minority government of Ian Smith.
The main opposition groups fighting the war against Smith's government were the late Joshua Nkomo's PF-ZAPU, which drew most of its support from the Ndebele people in southwestern Zimbabwe, and Mugabe's ZANU, whose cadres were mainly drawn from the majority Shona people in the north.
Operation Gukurahundi, condemned internationally for the violence it unleashed for five years on mainly rural Ndebele between 1982 and 1987, ended when the Unity Accord was signed and the two political parties merged under the banner of ZANU-PF.
Called the Gukurahundi Memorial Bill, the proposed legislation intends to criminalise denial of the campaign. It will also advocate for a memorial to those killed, and the establishment of a fund to compensate those affected by the operation.
Moyo, an abrasive defender of the Mugabe regime before 2005, told IRIN that contrary to government accusations that he was seeking to polarise the country along ethnic lines, he wanted to record an accurate account of the country's history and open avenues of redress for those who had been affected.
"We should not be ashamed of recording the past, because it is our history whether we like to hear about it or not. The episode affected our people in many ways, and they remain victims up to this day because they have not been helped out of the stagnation of development that came as a result of that war."
Moyo, who is also the MP for Tsholotsho, a district that bore the brunt of Gukurahundi operations in Matabeleland North, said, "The perpetrators may not need it, but the victims, including thousands in my constituency, still want an apology, if not justice."
Government spokespersons and former PF-ZAPU leaders in Matabeleland have pleaded with people to ignore the bill, dismissing it as motivated by Moyo's desire to revive his waning political fortunes rather than a pursuit of justice.
ZANU-PF national chairman John Nkomo, a former PF-ZAPU leader who is also the Speaker of Parliament, told IRIN that no one has ever denied the existence of Gukurahundi, but said Moyo's bill would reopen "old wounds" healed by the Unity Accord.
"Even President Mugabe has acknowledged Gukurahundi as a time of madness, which must never be repeated, so that means government is in a position to redress what happened then without having to be bound by any bills," Nkomo said.
"We must be careful when handling such issues because they affect the national unity symbolised by the unification of ZANU-PF and PF-ZAPU into the united ZANU-PF we have today. Gukurahundi has always been steeped in tribal overtones pitting the Ndebele against the Shona, and no one wants to revisit such a divisive era."
Although he admitted that underdevelopment in the Midlands and Matabeleland regions could be linked to the post-independence state of emergency that was only lifted in 1990, Nkomo said there was no deliberate government ploy to marginalise the provinces. "Government is doing all it can to develop Matabeleland - many programmes are lagging behind because of a nationwide lack of funding. I am sure a way will be found to address those problems."
Dumiso Dabengwa, a former PF-ZAPU leader who held various ministerial portfolios in the post-unity government, told IRIN that although Gukurahundi was an undeniable reality, the Unity Accord had provided an amnesty and national reconciliation without prosecution for both sides.
"Those who were supposed to have been taken to court were not taken to court. The Unity Accord was signed so that we should move forward, but Moyo seeks to take us back to that era and that is divisive," Dabengwa said.
However, government's views have been overshadowed by a surge of public support for Moyo's bill in the Matabeleland regions, where most of the victims live.
Opinion-makers from the region have applauded Moyo's initiative as a necessary contribution to a subject long considered taboo; many have said the bill was necessary to remove the veil of silence on the massacres, while others reasoned that it would expose the perpetrators and ensure that justice for the victims was not sacrificed for the sake of national unity.
"If one looks at the record of government on Gukurahundi, there has been no formal apology or clear acknowledgment of this sad chapter," said Progress Ngwenya, a political and human rights activist with the Post Independence Survivors Trust, a nongovernmental organisation (NGO) advocating for justice for the victims of the Gukurahundi operation based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city, in Matabeleland North.
"We continue to hear many reckless statements from senior government officials celebrating this dirty episode as a justified military exercise. With the bill like the one Moyo is proposing, these people can be called account."
Jethro Mpofu, a political commentator and government critic, said Moyo's bill did not pose a threat to unity but to the "unrepentant" perpetrators. "The perpetrators have not apologised or shown any remorse. Gukurahundi will not be forgotten because the victims are still suffering the many effects of mass human slaughter. Many who lost their parents do not have birth or national identity cards, so they cannot go to school. The correction of the development imbalances which resulted from the era remains pending."
As evidence that the Mugabe regime remained unrepentant about Gukurahundi, commentators have cited a recent comment by ZANU-PF spokesman Nathan Shamuyarira, who said government did not regret the killings because they happened during a legitimate state security operation.
However, President Robert Mugabe acknowledged in 1999 that soldiers sent to fight a PF-ZAPU dissident insurgency "went beyond limits" by killing innocent civilians. "We had differences and engaged in a reckless, unprincipled fight within ourselves. It was an act of madness; we killed each other; we destroyed each other's property," Mugabe said at a memorial service for former vice-president and PF-ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo.
The government has consistently refused to publicise the findings of the 1983 Chihambakwe Commission, appointed by Mugabe to investigate allegations of civilian massacres. The commission was headed by Justice Chihambakwe, then a High Court judge. The findings of another probe, led the following year by retired judge Enock Dumbutshena, were also not released.
According to a report compiled in 1997 by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, a faith-based NGO, more that 20,000 civilians, mainly PF-ZAPU supporters, were killed by security forces during the operation. The report, 'Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace', recorded official statements that had allegedly fanned the killings, and provided evidence of mass graves and the location of mine shafts where bodies had been thrown.
The report recommended a national reconciliation process, a proper burial for the victims and compensation packages for those affected, with accelerated development for the affected regions of the southwest.
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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions