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Gukurahundi Massacres: Dissident Numbers (Part 7)


The numbers of dissidents were probably no more than 400 at their height. Their attrition rate was very high, with approximately 75% being killed, captured, injured or fleeing to Botswana.

While the dissidents themselves did not fear 5 Brigade much, considering it to be an inefficient fighting unit dedicated to killing civilians, the local population feared the Brigade greatly. Locals therefore gave help only with reluctance, or at the point of a gun.
While the dissidents themselves did not fear 5 Brigade much, considering it to be an inefficient fighting unit dedicated to killing civilians, the local population feared the Brigade greatly. Locals therefore gave help only with reluctance, or at the point of a gun.

At their peak, dissident numbers in Matabeleland South were around 200, but by the Amnesty this had been reduced to 54. In Matabeleland North, dissidents numbered around 90 at most, but again, by the Amnesty, only 41 remained.

In western Matableland, dissidents numbered 90 at their peak, and around 27 at the Amnesty. Ultimately, only 122 dissidents would turn themselves in, countrywide. It is possible that a handful of people who were more correctly criminals than dissidents, and who had committed similar crimes, did not surrender at this time.


Dissidents frequently point out that, in direct contrast to the war for liberation, they had very little popular support in the 1980s. This they attribute to the comparative strength of the forces against them, and the dissidents’ inability to protect civilians who fed them from being persecuted in turn: “quite the opposite: their activities drew Government crackdowns in which civilians suffered greatly.”

In addition, while civilians had been prepared to suffer to protect the armed comrades when liberation was the clear goal, there was no perceivable long or short term benefit for civilians in helping dissidents in the 1980s. In 1981, dissidents were sometimes greeted with sympathy, when they told how they had been persecuted in the army.

However, sympathy deteriorated rapidly, partly because of ZAPU policy regarding dissidents, partly because of the disrespect and violence with which dissidents treated local people, and partly because some blamed the dissidents for the heavy costs to civilians of the government repression which followed.

While the dissidents themselves did not fear 5 Brigade much, considering it to be an inefficient fighting unit dedicated to killing civilians, the local population feared the Brigade greatly. Locals therefore gave help only with reluctance, or at the point of a gun.

The dissidents were particularly resented for their insistence that villagers kill chickens, a luxury food, to provide them with relish: they also raped young women. When help was given, the dissidents did not perceive this help as politically motivated: “They gave us support knowing our lives were at stake”.

Interviews in the case study areas make it clear that civilians saw themselves as once more “caught in the middle”, as they had been in the 1970s liberation war.

On the one hand, if they supported dissidents, they were likely to be punished, detained or killed by 5 Brigade or other army units, but if they refused this support, or if they reported dissidents, they were likely to be punished or killed by the dissidents.

This phenomenon is marked in the resettled villages of Nyamandlovu. (See “Village by Village Summary”, under Eastern Nyamandlovu, page ). Here dissidents burnt out 2 resettled villages. 5 Brigade saw the smoke, and drove over.

The dissidents escaped, but villagers were left to face interrogation by 5 Brigade, resulting in the only death in this incident. There are on record from Tsholotsho, interviews which report people being beaten or killed by 5 Brigade for going to 5 Brigade camps to report the presence of dissidents in their area.

In Matobo too, especially in Khumalo Communal Lands, civilians reported how they often found themselves trapped between dissidents who demanded food and returned on subsequent occasions making ever more violent threats about what would happen to any villagers who reported their presence.

Several families fled the area for Bulawayo or Botswana, rather than face the continual dilemma of what to do about the dissidents.


It is very difficult at this stage to quantify clearly the full extent of the damage caused by dissidents, because of the biased nature of press reporting at the time, and the fact that Government agencies such as 5 Brigade and the CIO were committing human rights violations concurrently, sometimes in the guise of the dissidents.

It is, however, generally accepted by all parties that dissidents were responsible for all the murders of white farmers and their families in the 1980s. Between late 1982 and the end of 1983, 33 farmers or their family members were murdered.

While the impact of dissidents on civilians in the communal lands was perceived as less harsh by far than that of 5 Brigade, the impact of the dissidents on the small commercial farming communities was dramatic.

For example, in Nyamandlovu, which lies in the first Case Study area, ZIPRA had been responsible for killing only one white farming couple in Nyamandlovu during the 1970s, but in the 1980s, dissidents killed 21 people in this commercial farming area, inclusive of farmers, their families and at times, their staff.

Many farmers sold their ranches, or moved their families into nearby Bulawayo for protection, leaving productive farmland idle.

Nyamandlovu farmers themselves say they believe their farms provided a convenient corridor for dissidents wishing to get from parts of Zimbabwe further east or north, back to Tsholotsho or Botswana in the west.

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Farms here are huge, frequently 5 000 hectares or more, and being mainly ranchland, they are not labour intensive. It would therefore have been comparatively easy for dissidents to travel through the remote parts of the ranches without being detected. Farmers believe dissidents did travel to and fro, keeping a low profile in between their ambushes.

Dissidents themselves talk of using the commercial farms as “hospitals” for their injured. However, the problem in staying for any length of time on these farms was lack of access to food and water.

Dissidents were also responsible for severely disrupting normal activities in Matobo commercial farming areas, where 8 deaths were reported by The Chronicle as having occurred on commercial farms in this district.

In addition, farming equipment was frequently burnt out, and livestock killed. In June 1982, a cattle sale was raided by dissidents, who stole $40 000.

There were also other murders of commercial farmers, apart from those in the two case study areas – see Tables in Part Two, III for more detail. Some of the murders were committed by Super ZAPU, particularly in the southern and south western part of Matabeleland. These murders involved the deaths of men, women and children.

Its seems likely that most of the multiple murders and ambushes were committed by a few bands of dissidents, while the rest of the dissidents confined their activity to petty crimes.

For example, on 5 October 1983, The Chronicle reports the arrest of a gang of 5 dissidents, part of a larger gang which is linked to the murders of twenty eight commercial farmers and their families: these murders occurred in Gwanda, Bubi, and Nyamandlovu, and included the murder of Senator Paul Savage.

This latter murder was attributed by D. Martin and P. Johnson to Super ZAPU on ballistic evidence, which in turn implies that these 28 murders may all have involved Super ZAPU.

Minister Simbi Mubako is also quoted in the above-indicated news report as having said it is “extremely difficult” in some cases to determine which people had died at the hands of dissidents and which had been killed by out and out criminals.

Apart from the murders on commercial farms, dissidents also murdered civilians in the communal areas, although they did not appear to do so as a matter of course. Those murdered were often villagers regarded as “sell-outs”, who were believed to have informed the security forces of dissident movements.

The dissidents also targeted ZANU-PF officials, in a retaliatory gesture for the large numbers of ZAPU officials being arrested or murdered by Government agencies during these years, and also as a protest against the ZANU-PF role in repressing civilians in Matabeleland North.

Exactly how many people were murdered by dissidents in the rural areas will remain speculation.

Government figures would place the murdered in the region of around 700 to 800. But in areas where fairly exhaustive research has now taken place, these high casualty claims are not borne out.

In Tsholotsho, for example, fewer than 20 murders of civilians are blamed on dissidents by residents, and in Lupane, around 25 murders are attributed to them, although this figure includes some murders in which witnesses believed the true identity of the perpetrators to be Government agents in disguise as dissidents. There was a further handful of dissident murders in Nkayi. Yet Matabeleland North was allegedly a hot bed of dissident activity.

In Matobo, the second Case Study area, The Chronicle specifically reports the murders of 30 people in the district: this figure includes the 16 missionaries murdered, and several commercial farmers and their families, well over half this total figure.

Civilians in the Communal Lands interviewed in 1996 attributed 11 murders to dissidents, between 1982 and 1987. Most of these were in Khumalo Communal Lands, a mountainous region where dissidents could readily conceal themselves from pursuing troops.

In this area certain notorious dissidents were well known to villagers and greatly feared and hated. These included the “pseudo dissident” Gayigusu, and also “Fidel Castro”, “Danger” and “Idi Amin”. All these dissidents are referred to by name in The Chronicle at different times.

While murders of civilians in rural areas were not common, those that occurred were often exceedingly sadistic, as the following testimony shows.

CASE 2611 ABy, 2612 X



TIME: November 1985

WITNESS: Wife of murder victim

VICTIM: 47 year old farmer, married with 8 children – murdered:

Wife – wounded with an axe and beaten

Gukurahundi Massacres: Village by Village Summary (Part 8)

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.