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Gukurahundi Massacres: Why Zipra soldiers deserted ZNA (Part 5)

The Dumbutshena Report

The Government instituted a Commission of Inquiry into events surrounding Entumbane, conducted by the then Chief Justice Enock Dumbutshena. However, Mr Mugabe complained about its findings, and the Dumbutshena Report has never been made public.

Army defectors

The Entumbane uprising led to mass defections of ZIPRA members from the Assembly Points (APs). Defectors interviewed in the 1990s have stated they saw their decisions to leave the APs as life-preserving, or alternatively as reflections of their disillusionment with their experiences in the APs.

Members of the 5th Brigade on parade
Members of the 5th Brigade on parade

Some of this disillusionment was with what was perceived as a political bias in the army towards favouring ZANLA, especially where promotions were concerned.

ZIPRA members also commented on the growing number of ZIPRA soldiers who seemed to be “disappearing” under mysterious circumstances from army ranks, and to a growing paranoia among ZIPRA members, who, for example, began to imagine plots to poison them in the army.

It was thus disillusionment and fear, rather than any strong political motivation, that led ZIPRA soldiers to defect from the army and hence to a life on the run.

Those who defected took their weapons with them, and armed banditry increased.

The “discovery” of large arms caches in Matabeleland in February 1982 had major political repercussions for ZAPU.

The ZANU-PF leadership now openly accused ZAPU of planning an armed revolt, to make up for ZAPU’s comparatively poor showing in the 1980 General Elections.

ZAPU Cabinet Ministers Nkomo, Chinamano, Muchachi and Msika were dismissed from the Government and ZIPRA’s former military leaders Dumiso Dabengwa and Lookout Masuku were arrested with four others, and subsequently tried for treason.

The High Court later acquitted all the men on the treason charges, and referred to Dabengwa as “the most impressive witness this court has seen in a long time” and “the antithesis of [a person] scheming to overthrow the government”.

However, Dabengwa and Masuku and the four others were re-arrested and held in detention for many years.

The seriously ill Masuku was released in March 1986, to die in April, and Dabengwa was released in December 1986.

Lookout Masuku
Lookout Masuku

The harsh treatment given to ZAPU leaders in the wake of the finding of the arms caches – at least some of which were later found to have been planted at the instigation of white former members of the CIO working as South African agents – convinced many more ex-ZIPRAs that they could not expect fair treatment if they remained in the APs or in ZNA units.

Many – possibly thousands – of ex-combatants deserted at this time: the exact number remains speculative. The perception among ex-ZIPRA soldiers that they were being increasingly persecuted as 1982 progressed, led to more defections.

For example, six dissidents made the decision to leave the ZNA after their company commander announced in Lupane, in the late 1982 search for dissidents, that he would kill “dissidents” – meaning former ZIPRA guerrillas – in the company first.

By the end of 1982, there were many hundreds of ex-ZIPRA soldiers who had deserted the ZNA for one reason or another, and the availability of weapons in the bush helped snowball dissident growth.

At first, dissident operations were piecemeal, and complicated by the existence of Super ZAPU, although how active Super ZAPU was, in particular in Matabeleland North, is still partly a matter of conjecture.

They appear to have used southern Nyamandlovu as a corridor into the country at times, but whether they committed any crimes in that area or further north is not clear.

The Government increasingly used the anti-ZIPRA and anti-ZAPU rhetoric which had become apparent as early as 1980, and there was a change in semantics at this time, so that all armed robberies in Matabeleland became referred to as the work of “bandits” or “dissidents”.

There were also repeated speeches by Government officials linking ZAPU to dissidents.

In addition, from 1982, ex-ZIPRA combatants – and not just deserters – increasingly faced persecution: ex-ZIPRAs who had been formally demobilised and those still in the army were increasingly subjected to arrest and harassment.

Detention camps were established at St Paul’s in Lupane, at Tsholotsho, at Plumtree airstrip, and at Bhalagwe in Kezi, where the CIO interrogated ex-combatants.

Within army battalions, tensions ran high: ZANLA and ZIPRA each suspected the other of concealing arms, and ZIPRA members noticed the escalating arrest and disappearance of cadres from their ranks.

The response of ZIPRA ex-combatants and ZAPU officials to this was varied: many fled the country to become refugees in Botswana or Zambia, or to find work in South Africa, and some formed bands of armed dissidents.

Some of those who fled to Zambia were assisted by the UNHCR to escape to various European countries, while others were pursued and killed by Zimbabwean Government agents. Those who left frequently lost property left in the country, and many have never returned. According to Alexander:

…interviews with ZIPRA guerrillas consistently indicated that their persecution at this time, rather than the political rift, was the key in causing mass desertions. Many felt they had little choice but to flee or take up arms again to save their lives.

The dissidents themselves reveal that the 1980s war was one with no clear goal or direction. In the words of one dissident:

“… in the 1980s war, no one was recruited, we were forced by the situation, all of us just met in the bush. Each person left on his own, running from death.”

Another researcher who has interviewed dissidents in the 1990s, recorded comments which confirm the idea that self-preservation was the strongest motive ex-ZIPRAs had in becoming dissidents.

“We wanted to defend ourselves personally. Our lives were threatened.”

“Apart from defending ourselves, there was very little we wanted to achieve.”

“We were threatened. That was why I decided to desert.”

Those who deserted or demobilised with the simple intention of going home to start their lives again found themselves driven away by the arrival of 5 Brigade.

“They were hunting ex-ZIPRA members…and if they found [them], they killed those people.”

“If you say that you have been in the army, they would take you.”

“Some of us who demobilised, thought it best to return home because at least you could live in your own house. But little did we know that we were coming to a much worse situation.

“I did not even have time to spend my demob money before I had to leave to go to this second war…. Since you were a demobilised ZIPRA ex-combatant, they would immediately find you guilty and level you [i.e. kill you] as a dissident.”

In direct contrast to the Government’s claims that dissidents were being supported by ZAPU, dissidents express a sense of “abandonment by their leaders, who were often in jail or who actively dissociated themselves from, and condemned, their activities.”

At the same time, the dissidents “maintained their loyalty to ZAPU and tenaciously clung to their liberation war identity as ZIPRA guerrillas.”

This loyalty expressed itself in the attempts of the dissidents to echo ZIPRA command structures and ethics, even though they lacked high level political or military leaders and were few in number.

Operational Zones

In late 1983, the dissidents divided Matabeleland and parts of the Midlands into three operational regions, in accordance with ZIPRA principles.

The existence of Super ZAPU was a factor which encouraged the other dissidents to organise themselves along the lines of ZIPRA command structures, in order to help undermine and separate Super ZAPU from themselves.

The regions were as follows.

1. The Western Region, mainly Tsholotsho and Bulilimamangwe, which ran from the Victoria Falls railway line to the Plumtree railway line, and was under the command of a dissident called Tulane.

2. The Northern region, mainly Kwekwe, Lupane and Nkayi, which ran from the Victoria Falls Bulawayo railway line east to Silobela, and was under the command of three successive dissidents, first Gilbert Sitshela, then Mdawini, then Masikisela.

3. Matobo, Insiza, Gwanda and Beitbridge formed the Southern region, from the Plumtree railway line east to Mberengwa. One dissident interviewed commented that a Matobo unit was allowed to make contact with this southern structure only in 1986, because of fears of Super ZAPU. This region was under the command of a man called “Brown” in 1987.

Each region had a commander and a few platoons of 15 to 30 men, with sections of around five.

The dissidents faced operational problems: shortage of ammunition was a major concern, and this in turn led to a defensive strategy, with most dissident activities being restricted to night-time attacks or forays into villages for food, followed by hurried retreats and then lying low during hours of daylight to avoid being detected by troops. “What is five bullets against an army?” commented one dissident.

The dissidents’ commitment to seeing themselves as ZIPRA throughout this time, in spite of the absence of direct instruction from ZAPU, was instrumental not only in the swift demise of Super ZAPU, but also in the quick and orderly surrender after the Amnesty, when the dissidents obeyed the call of senior ZAPU officials that they should lay down their arms.

Gukurahundi Massacres: Super Zapu dissidents (Part 6)

Taken from a report on the 1980’s disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands. Compiled by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe, March 1997.