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Decades later, wounds still run deep over the notorious Fifth Brigade’s massacres of dissidents in Matabeleland. But efforts to remember it have pitted activists against an authoritarian state that would prefer to forget

A memorial plaque in Maphisa, Zimbabwe, lies in ruins on Jan. 4 after state security agents destroyed it. It honoured the victims of Operation Gukurahundi, a crackdown on dissidents that ran from 1983 to 1987.Sakhele Hadebe

Two hours after sunset last Tuesday, the quiet darkness outside the Zimbabwean village of Maphisa was shattered by the crack of a loud explosion.

The villagers soon understood what had happened. State security agents had demolished, yet again, a memorial plaque for the hundreds of innocent people who were tortured and executed by Zimbabwean soldiers at the nearby Bhalagwe prison camp in the early 1980s.

In a country whose authoritarian rulers still seek to control historical memory, even a simple plaque can be seen as subversive. And so plaques have triggered their own war: an unending saga of destruction, replacement and destruction again.

Over the past four years, volunteers have tried five times to place a memorial at Bhalagwe, near mine shafts where the bodies of the prisoners were dumped. Each time, the security forces have chased them away or demolished the plaque.

In the village of Silobela, another memorial plaque, which commemorated a separate massacre during the same period of military repression, has suffered a similar fate: destroyed, replaced and forcibly removed again, twice in the past year.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took power after Robert Mugabe was toppled in a military coup in 2017, launched his presidency with promises of peace and reconciliation. But his rhetoric was tainted by his own close association with the massacres of the 1980s, when he was a top Mugabe lieutenant and state security minister.

The battles over the memorial plaques have exposed how far his government is willing to go, even several decades later, to maintain control of the narrative of Zimbabwean history.

The atrocities of that era have been well documented. An estimated 20,000 civilians were killed from 1983 to 1987 in a campaign by the Zimbabwean army’s notorious Fifth Brigade, targeting dissidents in the Matabeleland region, an opposition stronghold. The military operation became known as Gukurahundi – “the rain that washes away the chaff.”

Mr. Mugabe later called it “a moment of madness.” But his ruling party has never permitted an official accounting of the suffering.

The activists who build the memorials have refused to abandon their campaign, no matter how many plaques are destroyed. Less than two days after the explosion at the former Bhalagwe prison camp, they were making plans again. “We are going to replace it,” said Mbuso Fuzwayo, leader of an independent Zimbabwean group seeking justice for the killings of the 1980s. “As long as we are fighting against the state, they can destroy the plaque, but we will keep replacing it.”

At top, government troops gather on a road west of Bulawayo in 1981 to stop ex-guerrillas loyal to Robert Mugabe's former ally, Joshua Nkomo, whose rival ZAPU party was the main target of the Gukurahundi operation; at bottom, actors in 2018 re-enact the atrocities of Gukurahundi in the play 1983: The Dark Years.The Associated Press; JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images

Bhalagwe became notorious in the 1980s as a detention camp where the Fifth Brigade held thousands of civilians from across Matabeleland.

“They were brutally tortured, and many were killed,” an investigation by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace concluded in a report a decade later. “It became a feared place.”

For several months in 1984, large numbers of prisoners were raped, beaten or tortured with electric shocks. Many were executed and thrown into the shafts of an abandoned gold mine near the camp. Trucks brought bodies to the mine shafts every night for months.

The efforts to place a plaque at the site began in 2018. Volunteers made two attempts in May and June of that year.

The first was blocked by police. The second was halted by Zimbabwe’s much-feared central intelligence agency. Villagers were threatened and warned to stay away.

A few months later, in February, 2019, the activists made another attempt. This time, they temporarily succeeded – but police were watching closely as the plaque was erected. Within days, after the volunteers had left the site, the plaque was destroyed.

A mass grave, shown in 2018, bears the names of six victims of the Matabeleland massacres.Jerome Delay/The Associated Press

Last year, in May, the group tried again. The police set up a roadblock. They eventually allowed the activists into the site, but kept a careful watch over them. Again, a plaque was erected, but a day later the terrified local villagers reported that it had been removed.

In late October, the campaigners made their latest attempt. They placed another plaque at the site and guarded it overnight to keep it safe. The next day, local chiefs and religious leaders held an unveiling ceremony. “The blood of the victims speaks out from the grave, calling for justice,” Rev. Milson Ndlovhu, one of the invited dignitaries, said in a speech. “The dead speak, and they will always speak out.”

This time, the plaque wasn’t immediately destroyed. “It’s a victory for the community and for those who want peace and truth,” Mr. Fuzwayo said in December. “We were determined to ensure that Bhalagwe would have a memorial that openly speaks to what happened. The perpetrators have seen that we will never give up in our quest for a genocide memorial.”

The plaque survived for about two months – until the evening of the explosion.

The National Transitional Justice Working Group, a coalition of human-rights and civil-society organizations, has said the repeated destruction of the Bhalagwe plaque is “a deliberate effort to rewrite history by erasing the lived experiences of victims and survivors.”

Because of Zimbabwe’s history of violence and conflict, memorials must be an “urgent” priority, the group said after the destruction of the plaque last May.

In Harare, President Emmerson Mnangagwa lights the Eternal Flame of Freedom at 2018's independence day celebrations, where spectators created a large co-ordinated portrait of him. These were his first independence day celebrations since coming to power the previous fall.JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images

While the activists were struggling to place their memorial, one of the orchestrators of the Gukurahundi massacres was still a powerful figure in the post-Mugabe government. Perrance Shiri, who commanded the Fifth Brigade during the slaughter, was appointed to Mr. Mnangagwa’s cabinet as agriculture minister in late 2017.

When Mr. Shiri died three years later, Mr. Mnangagwa praised him as a “true patriot” and authorized his burial at National Heroes Acre, an official shrine, with a 17-gun salute and an air force flyover.

Mr. Mnangagwa’s own role in the Gukurahundi atrocities has been documented beyond any doubt. At the beginning of the military operation, as state security minister, he denounced the dissidents in Matabeleland as “cockroaches and bugs.” He later praised the Fifth Brigade for having “cleansed” the region by “wiping out” the opposition.

Since becoming president, Mr. Mnangagwa has refused to apologize for Gukurahundi when journalists have asked him about it. The government still refers to the massacres as “disturbances” – an official euphemism.

Both of Mr. Fuzwayo’s grandfathers were among the thousands of civilians killed in the military operation in the 1980s, and he watched as other relatives were beaten by security forces. He has fought for justice for the victims, leading protest marches and seeking to place plaques at several of the massacre sites, despite being repeatedly arrested.

“Bhalagwe is the face of the genocide,” he said. “Those who led the killings are trying, by every means, to deny the truth to our citizens. The survivors believe the memorials are important, because they speak for us quietly.”

Mbuso Fuzwayo, right, and Effie Ncube review the damaged memorial site. They are members of the human-rights group seeking justice for Gukurahundi.Sakhele Hadebe

Sinikiwe Ncube, who lives in Bhalagwe village, was just 10 years old when her father was killed during the Gukurahundi attacks in 1985. “Soldiers seized him from our home at night,” she said.

“I grew up in poverty because my father was dead. So many innocent people were massacred. Memorials for them are important because they help our own children to know our history and where we came from.”

Thandekile Moyo, a writer and human-rights activist, was born during the Gukurahundi killings in 1984 and grew up just 80 kilometres from Bhalagwe. In her childhood, survivors – including her parents – were too afraid to talk about the violence. Children inherited their parents’ fear of soldiers, without really knowing why. She remembers her classmates scattering to hide in bushes when a military vehicle passed them on their way to school.

As a child, she knew nothing about the massacres. “We were raised by parents who were unavailable and bitter because of the traumas that they faced,” she said. “There are a lot of emotional and psychological scars.”

Later in her life, she read about the killings and began to study Gukurahundi at university. But when she wrote on the subject publicly, she was fired from her job at a Zimbabwean publishing company.

“The silence has made the younger generation more curious about what happened,” she said. “This generation is angrier and less afraid of the issue than the generation that experienced it directly. So the momentum is increasing as a new generation is taking up the fight.”

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