Meanwhile, the army has been killing people on behalf of the state with impunity since 1980. Witnesses have reported seeing the army digging mass grave in Dangamvura cemetery and piling the human remains inside them. On one occasion, a witness saw the army using prisoners to dig the graves.
The state intelligence services are much more elusive and wield authority over other security departments. They have more resources and can use other apparatus to transfer abductees or human remains. They own properties for training and logistics and some of these locations are are believed to have been used for torture and even burial of human remains, according to surviving witness testimony. This was also confirmed with a witness I spoke to.
Another witness I interviewed went to the Marange diamond fields at the height of government operation in 2008 – Operation Hakudzokwi (“do not return” in Shona). He travelled all the way to Marange, about 120 miles from Chitungwiza, with three friends and got introduced to a syndicate leader who turned out to be a police officer. They were then given a map and some equipment and were directed where to go. He told me:
We spent three days in the fields playing cat and mouse with security details. We often heard gunshots in the night. In the day we would see police officers collecting bodies in metal coffins.
Since 2000, there have been more than 5,000 abductions by the state with about 49 abductions recorded in 2019 alone, according to the UN. I spoke to three witnesses who were abducted, tortured, stripped naked and then dumped near lake Chivero, which is 37km south-west of Harare. One said:
I was bundled into a Toyota Land Cruiser vehicle after being trailed by the unmarked vehicle in Harare. When we arrived near the lake they started beating me up with boots and fists.
The man said the thugs were demanding to know what the opposition plan was on an upcoming demonstration. When he could not confirm anything, they left him to walk naked to the main road for help.
What Happened to the Dead?
According to my study of the Gukurahundi killings, bodies were thrown down mine shafts in Antelope, Chibondo, Silobela, Filabusi and Nkayi. Human remains have been found at schools, hospitals, river banks, dams and caves. They have been dumped near business centres, disused airports and at former detention centres like Bhalagwe and Sun Yet Sen, which were set up during elections by war veterans and ZANU-PF youths. In 2011, for instance, a mass grave containing the remains of 60 people collapsed on a field while children played football. Victims who are not claimed at mortuaries are given pauper burials. This makes the search and recovery process even more difficult.
The use of cemeteries, like Hanyani and Kumbudzi, for stacking bodies in mass graves, is a particularly nefarious method. Cultural myths associated with the dead mean people very rarely venture into cemeteries. There is a belief that the spirits of the dead roam those places.
The victims of the Marange fields atrocities were killed by criminal syndicates attached to certain military personnel. They were either buried in the mines or taken away. Those taken away were buried by prisoners in cemeteries in Dangamvura, which is 22km away from the mining fields. The army dug two mass graves in Dangamvura cemetery in 2008 and buried over 60 bodies there.
Many of these things are common knowledge in Zimbabwe. Yet despite the alarming number of deaths and kidnaps, the official missing person database for Zimbabwe with Interpol currently stands at just 15. It includes my cousin, Miriam Gonzo, who went missing in South Africa.
Curiously it excludes people missing from the various democides, including journalist and human rights defender Itai Dzamara who was kidnapped by state agents in broad daylight in 2016 while having a haircut.
Clouded in Secrecy
Another layer of deception that emerged during the Mugabe era was the issuing of death certificates for the Gukurahundi democide. The vice president at the time, Phelekezela Mphoko, started a programme of issuing death certificates to surviving families without any investigation. Such processes will add to the conundrum of trying to identify and reconcile records of the missing in future.
The state often denies all killings and blames them on “insurgents”, “malcontents” and “third parties”. This is the narrative that was offered for the January and August 2019 state killings that saw over 18 people murdered by men in army uniforms. A subsequent inquiry, led by former South African president, Kgalema Motlanthe, concluded that the army was culpable – but there are still no prosecutions as a result.
Despite the death of Mugabe, the government continues to mislead the population. In May three women, including MP Joana Mamombe, said they were kidnapped, tortured and sexually assaulted by state agents. Not only did the state deny the abductions but they charged the women with breaking COVID-19 lockdown regulations and presenting false information to police.
In 2018 President Emmerson Mnangagwa enacted the National Peace and Reconciliation Act: legislation that facilitated the formation of a commission to look into previous human rights abuses. In addition, the Zimbabwean Parliament is debating the Coroners Act Bill which will establish the office of the coroner to investigate suspicious deaths.
There is a pressing need for human rights groups to compile a comprehensive missing persons database. An independent regulatory authority must oversee this whole process. International organisations, such as the International Commission for Missing Persons, could help.
I hope my research will support this effort and help correct the inaccurate historical record. More importantly, I want to help grieving relatives bury their loved ones and finally achieve some sort of closure.
When I finished my research, the image of my school friend was even more ingrained in my consciousness. It is for people like him, that investigations like mine must be allowed to continue.