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Page last updated at 16:31 GMT, Wednesday, 7 May 2008 17:31 UK

Tracking down a massacre

By John Simpson
World affairs editor, BBC News, Matabeleland

The terrible wounds which Robert Mugabe's Fifth Brigade inflicted on Matabeleland in the early 1980s still show.

The countryside is under-populated, there is even less employment in the towns than there is in the rest of Zimbabwe, and people are scared to talk.

Zimbabwean witness to Matabeleland killings
One witness to the killings said the memory was painful

Not all of them, though.

We slipped into Matabeleland with the help of local people, and gathered evidence of some of the massacres carried out there between 1982 and 1986.

It began as an attempt by Robert Mugabe, who was then prime minister of Zimbabwe, to deal with about 500 dissidents. These were followers of his rival, Joshua Nkomo, and mostly belonged to Nkomo's militia, Zipra.

Mr Mugabe ordered the Fifth Brigade, which had been trained by the North Korean army and had a number of North Korean officers serving with it, to root them out.

It soon turned into something much worse. The Fifth Brigade, like Mr Mugabe's government and administration, was mostly Shona-speaking; Matabeleland is populated mostly by Ndebeles, the descendants of Zulus who came to the area in the 1830s.

'Genocide'

Nowadays, many in Matabeleland describe the campaign of murder as genocide.

Sithokotule Mlotshwa on the deaths of her sister and brother-in-law

To find out how many people died, we went to the quiet precincts of the Catholic cathedral in Bulawayo to meet Joseph Buchena Nkatazo. He co-ordinated an investigation carried out some years ago by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.

Mr Nkatazo told us that in the areas where they had been able to investigate, they had found evidence of more than 20,000 deaths. He was sure there must have been many more elsewhere.

We drove south of Bulawayo to a place marked on the maps as Antelope - "Balakwe" in Ndebele. In the past, there was a lot of gold mining there.

Zimbabwe map

The Fifth Brigade set up a concentration camp in Antelope, where they systematically killed their prisoners. An eyewitness whom we interviewed had been a young girl of 11 when she was taken to the camp.

She saw people being shot, beaten and burned to death. "When I remember now, my heart is so painful," she told me.

The bodies of the dead were thrown down the nearby mine shafts.

Executioner's tale

We interviewed a man in late middle-age who had been one of the Fifth Brigade executioners.

He confessed to his part in the killings, and said he had also helped dispose of the bodies.

"We were taking them [to the mine-shafts] every day in the morning and evening," he said.

My colleagues and I drove to the Antelope mine. Our aim was to film the human remains at the foot of the mine shaft.

The soldiers told me Mugabe had sent them to kill. So I believe it
Henri Karlen
Former Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo

It was difficult to get close: a militia group loyal to Robert Mugabe is camped all round the mine.

Still, we managed to get there, and our cameraman lowered his camera down the shaft.

But the mine was empty. It turned out that the bones had all been cleared away about three years ago, to hide any evidence of the massacre.

An old man who lived nearby watched some soldiers dig two mass graves, and throw the bones into them. He led me to the graves: just mounds of earth and stones.

One day the remains will be properly exhumed. But not while Robert Mugabe is still in power.

Did he give the orders for the massacres at Antelope and elsewhere?

The former Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Henri Karlen, is certain he did.

Monsignor Karlen, who is Swiss by origin, confronted Mr Mugabe (who is himself a practising Catholic) and told him the murders must stop.

Nowadays Henri Karlen lives in a quiet compound in Bulawayo.

"Who brought the North Koreans in to train the soldiers for killing?" he said.

"And the soldiers told me Mugabe had sent them to kill. So I believe it."


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