Leader Won't Break Silence About Zimbabwe's Violent Past

In Zimbabwe, villagers usually welcome the rains. But the Gukuhurandi that poured on Matabeleland in the 1980s was a brutal deluge from which the area is still trying to recover.

Gukuhurandi, a Shona tribal word that means "the rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rains," is a euphemism for a violent campaign by President Robert Mugabe's security forces that killed 20,000 civilians.

During the torrent of violence, children watched as their parents were marched into sheds and burned alive. People were shot for weeping. Some victims were forced to dig their own graves.

A decade later, survivors are still waiting for death certificates for relatives who are not officially deceased - and an apology from the government. But if government silence continues, their hopes for reparations may be frustrated.

Inspired by South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Committee, independent lawyers and Roman Catholic human rights advocates wrote a 214-page report earlier this year detailing the actions of Mugabe's security forces in 1983-88.

The report, based on five years of research and 1,000 interviews, recommends a $50-million reconciliation fund for survivors. The model was South Africa, where psychological wounds have been healed by uncovering past wrongs.

But bishops wary of Mugabe, himself a Catholic, are afraid to release the report, ironically titled "Breaking the Silence," until the president comments on it - something he's failed to do since March. He's accused the report's authors of "mischief making." "They want to wreck our national unity," he said in a recent speech. His aides have said it is better to let bygones be bygones.

This dodging of responsibility will not help reconciliation in Matabeleland, says Mike Auret, director of the Harare-based Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, which compiled the report with the Legal Resources Foundation. "President Mugabe hasn't even had the courtesy to acknowledge he had received the report. If he accepts the report, he accepts what happened," he says.

Government officials, while not defending the violence, say Matabeleland was the site of a conflict between Mugabe's Army and dissidents who backed his rival, Joshua Nkomo. The tension was fueled by a destabilization campaign by apartheid-era South Africa.

Dissidents were active in the area, but most of the atrocities carried out by the Fifth Brigade were against ordinary citizens, according to the report - the first thorough investigation into the slaughter.

The contents of the report and the bishops' reluctance to release it have fueled indignation among the Matabeleland people, who comprise 20 percent of Zimbabwe's 11 million people. Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organization, has also called for the perpetrators to be removed from power.

The timing of the report could not be worse for Mugabe. The opposition has recently accused him of corruption. As the newly appointed chair of the Organization of African Unity, Mugabe's leadership is under greater scrutiny.

Welshman Ncube, a law professor at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare who lost family members in the massacre, says he's skeptical that Mugabe will acknowledge the report. "Accountability is very, very critical to healing the wounds. Those people who were responsible should no longer have positions of power," he says. "They, together with the president, must bear most of the moral responsibility for an attempted genocide."

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