SA needs to share Zimbabwe’s pain

Standfirst: BRENDAN SEARY was one of the first journalists to break the silence on Gukurahundi. He remembers the horror and appeals to South Africans to show sympathy and dignity to those fleeing Mugabe's latest abuses.
'I had found the bodies by smell'
It's amazing how time smooths over the u

npleasant cracks in your memory. Until I opened the musty yellowing clipping files of my work from 1983, I had forgotten how the pungent, sweet smell of death sticks in the back of your throat, how it settles in the membranes of your nose. And how, no matter how many beers you drink or how many showers you have, it still lingers.
I had found the bodies by smell. Six young men, piled together, probably in indescribable terror in their last seconds as AK-47 bullets ripped into them from close range. I had been told I would find them just off the main Bulawayo-Plumtree road in the Zimbabwean province of Matabeleland. I had rough directions, starting from a kilometre marker on the road. But still it took some time – time I didn’t have, because my car was parked in full view on the side of the road.
Not a desirable position if the soldiers returned. Not difficult to find a young white man in jeans and T-shirt in the scrubby bush. Not difficult to put a bullet in his brain and get rid of a witness. With the battered office Pentax camera, I squeezed off a few frames. Then I vomited. Half-digested cheese omelette, bacon and toast meet reality. Later – the same day, the same week, I can’t remember – I found another execution site.
How many died there was difficult to tell, because the bodies had been piled up, set alight and burnt to ashes. But bones require immense heat to destroy, so one ghostly white femur lay, half sticking up. For weeks in the early months of 1983 I traversed Matabeleland, recording ever more horrifying tales of the destruction wrought by Robert Mugabe’s North Korean-trained Five Brigade. Mugabe had unleashed the troops on the province – stronghold of his political enemy, Joshua Nkomo – late in the previous year.
The unit was known by its Shona name, Gukhurahundi, which means “the wind which blows away the chaff before the rains”. Clearly, Mugabe regarded the Ndebele people as just such chaff. Five Brigade was not a conventional military force, but more of a political killing machine. Reports of the numbers of people who died go as high as 20 000. Apart from the bodies, I saw burnt huts, and people with stab, hack and bullet wounds.
I spoke to women who had seen their husbands bayoneted in front of them; to old men who hid under beds when they heard the noise of our cars because they thought it was the soldiers returning; to shy, bruised girls who spoke in a quiet, roundabout way through gentle translators, about being gang-raped by drunken soldiers. I didn’t speak to many young men; most were either dead or had fled to Botswana or South Africa.
Re-reading the files, I was amazed by what I had forgotten – or buried away. (After my sister reminded me, I relived my brief detention at the police station in Gwanda, for allegedly illegally interviewing Joshua Nkomo on one of his farms which had been seized by the government.) I was put briefly in a cage for captured “dissidents” (before the friendly station commander invited me to share some strong Tanganda tea with him prior to letting me go) but had other things on my mind in 1983, as an intense four-year relationship with a woman ended badly.
I’m a bit ashamed now that that is clearer to me than genocide. I’ve long since healed, but Matabeleland still grieves. What was launched upon the province’s unfortunate people has since been replicated in various ways on the rest of the people of that long-suffering country. And now, as I see stories of people flooding across the border, I share the pain of these people, my people (I was born in Zimbabwe and will always be, at heart, a Zimbabwean). Please, please, please, South Africans, show these poor people some sympathy and dignity if you come across them. – From the Saturday Star, with permission

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