By: Mikaela Tenner
In January 1983, one of the darkest times in Zimbabwe’s history began. That month, the government’s Fifth Brigade executed more than 20,000 civilians in northern Zimbabwe. In the three decades since, no one has directly taken responsibility, although there has been a large amount of suspicion surrounding the extent to which the government was involved. Former Prime Minister Robert Mugabe has continued to dodge questions about the government’s involvement in the massacre, and has deflected fault upon political rivals, bandits, and even North Korea. However, the Australian High Commission declassified papers earlier this month that implicated Mugabe himself for the role he played in the killings. According to the files, Mugabe knowingly allowed the massacre to occur and was one of the primary advocates for the actions.
The slaughter of the 20,000 civilians took place in northern Zimbabwe, primarily in the town of Matabeleland. The massacre primarily focused its killings on the northern Ndebele people, a small sub-culture within Zimbabwe. According to sources, there were about 500 dissidents that Mugabe had identified in the Ndebele, and this was the major reason for the atrocity that occurred. Although Zimbabwe had a one-party system at the time, Mugabe allegedly considered the group a threat, and believed that their political opposition warranted punishment. International sources said that there was neither an internal or external threat.
In order to suppress the supposed dissidents, Mugabe sent in the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade. Upon arriving in the region, the Fifth Brigade tortured, beat, and burned people to death. Although Mugabe’s government argued for years that the brigade was only instructed to kill those who disrupted the political landscape, the now declassified papers reveal that the brigade was instructed to kill the entire Ndebele population. Further, after killing them, the soldiers of the Fifth Brigade were instructed to dispose of the bodies in order to remove any evidence from legitimate authorities.
Although there was always much suspicion surrounding the executions, these files finally make the proof complete. For years, the government has been trying to get around this incident and act as if it does not exist. What’s especially problematic is that the government not only sat by and allowed the killings to happen, but they also actively advocated for it. According to reports, there are still groups faithful to Mugabe that actively guard mine shafts believed to contain the remains of those killed, in order to prevent foreigners from finding proof. Although Mugabe has blamed the killings on a variety of factors for years, these classified reports now reveal that he was the head of it all. Although thirty years have passed since the massacre, and Mugabe is no longer Prime Minister, Zimbabwe is still tainted by the knowledge that their previous leader orchestrated the killing of 20,000 of his own citizens.
Furthermore, many in Zimbabwe have been dissatisfied by the West’s response to the massacres. Several reports have indicated that the West had a large amount of knowledge about what was occurring in Zimbabwe. However, according to many in Zimbabwe, the West was only concerned with the initial mass violence. Once the killings were at a more reasonable rate, the West left Zimbabwe to itself, and the world turned their backs on the country. There is an especially large amount of criticism surrounding the response, because the West was extraordinarily outspoken over the killing of white farmers in Zimbabwe in 2011.
Because it’s been more than 30 years since the end of the massacre, it is unfortunately a bit late for the West to respond. Nevertheless, after its past failure, it is important for the West to support Zimbabwe in the future. As many of those who carried out the genocide are still in power, it is unlikely that they will receive repercussions, either in Zimbabwe or from the outside world. However, Western nations can condemn the killings as genocide. Since 20,000 people were killed, and there will be no punishment, this is one of the only ways for the world to recognize the atrocities that occurred in Zimbabwe. Additionally, it may be vital for Western nations to monitor the government of Zimbabwe more closely, and to actually respond if they sense that another mass killing could ever be in the world. There is a large amount of evidence that the West fully knew the extent of the massacres, and for them to allow something similar to occur again would be a grave mistake.