Zimbabwe News and Internet Radio

Gukurahundi Massacres: The 5 Brigade and CIO (Part 12)


In Matabeleland South in 1984, the pattern of 5 Brigade behaviour differed notably from their behaviour in 1983. Killings were less likely to occur in the village setting. However, mass beatings remained very widespread, with many variations on a theme.

The key men behind the Gukurahundi Massacres: Robert Mugabe (President), Emmerson Mnangagwa (then State Security Minister) and Perrence Shiri (then commander of the 5th Brigade).
The key men behind the Gukurahundi Massacres: Robert Mugabe (President), Emmerson Mnangagwa (then State Security Minister) and Perrence Shiri (then commander of the 5th Brigade).

While the most common pattern still involved making people lie face down in rows, after which they were beaten with thick sticks, there are a large number of interviews referring to sadistic refinements in mass physical torture.

People were on occasion made to lie on thorny branches first, after which 5 Brigade ran along their backs to embed the thorns before the beatings. People were made to roll in and out of water while being beaten, sometimes naked. They were made to push government vehicles with their heads only, and were then beaten for bleeding on government property. Women were made to climb up trees and open their legs, so 5 Brigade could insult their genitals, while simultaneously beating them. Men and women were made to run round in circles with their index fingers on the ground, and were beaten for falling over.

These mass beatings invariably ended with at least some victims so badly injured that they were unable to move, so that they had to be carried away by others the following day. As in Matabeleland North, people were threatened with death if they reported to hospitals or clinics, and the majority of injuries remained untreated. Victims mention fractured limbs which set themselves crookedly, perforated ear drums which became infected, and other injuries which might have been simply treated, resulting in long-term health problems.

Genital mutilation is more commonly reported in Matobo than in Matabeleland North. The practice of forcing sharp sticks into women’s vaginas is independently reported by several witnesses. This phenomenon was apparently common at Bhalagwe, and witnesses refer to women at Bhalagwe adopting a characteristic, painful, wide-legged gait after receiving such torture. In addition, men were also subjected to beatings which focussed on their genitalia. The testicles would be bound in rubber strips and then beaten with a truncheon.

Some men complain of permanent problems with erections and urinating as a result of such beatings. At least one man is reported as dying after his scrotum was burst during a beating. Several witnesses also report being told to have sex with donkeys while at Bhalagwe, and being beaten when they failed to do so. The practice of wide spread rape, of young women being “given as wives” to 5 Brigade at Bhalagwe is also referred to by several independent sources.

The CIO seemed to work very closely with the 5 Brigade in Matabeleland South, and gained a reputation for being even more lethal in their methods of torture than 5 Brigade. The CIO conducted most of the “interrogation” at Bhalagwe and Sun Yet Sen: they would ask questions, while 5 Brigade, who could not speak or understand Ndebele, beat the victim regardless of what he/she responded. CIO used electric shocks to torture people. They attached wires to the backs, ears and mouths of witnesses before shocking them.

Witnesses frequently refer to being tortured by 5 Brigade and then CIO consecutively, or being passed from the custody of one to the other and back again. In Bhalagwe, there is repeated reference to a particularly cruel woman CIO officer who used to sexually torment her male victims.

Water torture was also apparently wide-spread under both CIO and 5 Brigade. This commonly involved either holding a person’s head under water, or forcing a shirt into somebody’s mouth, then pouring water onto the shirt until the victim choked and lost consciousness. The perpetrator would then jump on the victim’s stomach until s/he vomited up the water. This practice commonly stopped once the victim was vomiting blood.

While killing by 5 Brigade was less widespread than in Matabeleland North in 1983, there are still many horrific atrocities on record, including the following, all perpetrated by 5 Brigade. A four month-old infant was axed three times, and the mother forced to eat the flesh of her dead child. An eighteen year-old girl was raped by six soldiers and then killed. An eleven year-old child had her vagina burnt with plastic and was later shot. Twin infants were buried alive.


Mass beatings and rallies invariably ended in mass detentions in 1984. Those detained included all ex-ZIPRAs, all ZAPU officials, and other men and women selected on a seemingly random basis. Those detained could include the elderly, and also schoolchildren. Trucks seemed to patrol, picking up anyone they met and taking them to detention camps.

It was usual for detainees to be taken first to the nearest 5 Brigade base, for 1 or more days, before being transferred to Bhalagwe. Interviewees report being held in small 5 Brigade camps, until there were enough of them to fill an army vehicle to Bhalagwe. A truck-load seems to have been around 100 people. In southern Matobo, the main `holding camp’ was at Sun Yet Sen, where both the CIO and the 5 Brigade were based.This camp reportedly held up to 800 detainees at one time, and people were sometimes held here for a week or longer. There were smaller bases in the west and north.

Detainees in southern Matobo were commonly beaten before their detention, tortured at Sun Yet Sen, and then transferred to Bhalagwe for further torture and detention. In addition to detentions after rallies or mass beatings, 5 Brigade also went through some areas on foot, hauling out villagers from the homesteads they passed, and then herding them ahead on foot, while beating them. Some interviewees report covering extensive distances in this way, as 5 Brigade made a sweep through many villages in an area, gathering a growing number of detainees as they went.


The most notorious detention centre of all was Bhalagwe Camp, situated just west of Antelope Mine. From interviews, Bhalagwe operated at full capacity throughout the early months of 1984, from the beginning of February until the end of May, a period of 4 months. It continued to operate after this, but the phenomenon of mass detentions had dissipated by then, and there were fewer new inmates after this.

On 15 May 1982 aerial photographs of the Bhalagwe area were taken for the purposes of updating maps of the area. An enlarged section of one such photograph (see page ) shows that at this date, Bhalagwe was an operational military camp: military vehicles are visible, as are soldiers on parade. It would appear that 1:7 Battalion was based here in 1982, consisting mainly of ex ZIPRAs incorporated into the Zimbabwe National Army.

At some point in 1982, the ZIPRAs here were allegedly accused of being dissidents, and Bhalagwe Camp was surrounded by elite Paratroop and Commando units and was shut down. However, a military presence was maintained here, as there are references to Bhalagwe being used as a detention centre for ex ZIPRAs and others from mid 1982 onwards, when the anti-ZIPRA sweep in the wake of the tourist kidnapping gained momentum.

Visible at Bhalagwe in May 1982, are 180 large, round roofed asbestos “holding sheds”, each measuring approximately 12 metres by 6 metres, and 36 half-sized ones, measuring 6 metres by 6 metres. According to testimonies on record since March 1984, which have been confirmed in interviews in 1996, these asbestos structures were where detainees were kept.

It is also clear from the aerial photography, that these structures were arranged, apparently within fences, in groups of a dozen – eleven 12 x 6 metre structures and 1 smaller one. What is not clear is how many of these groupings were used in 1984 to house detainees, and how many were used to house military personnel, or served storage or interrogation purposes. Perhaps many were out of use. There is also reference by some detainees to some of the asbestos sheds having suffered wind and storm damage, so by February 1984 the camp may have been less intact than it appears in the May 1982 photograph.

Detainees confirm that 136 people were routinely kept in each 12 x 6 metre shed. There were no beds, and the floor space was so limited people had to sleep squeezed together on their sides, in 3 rows. There were no blankets or toilet facilities.

An assumption, based on affidavits, of 136 per shed would allow for the detention of at least 1500 people within each fenced enclosure of a dozen sheds. Bhalagwe camp has been variously estimated by ex-detainees to have had 1800, 2000, 3000 up to 5000 people detained at one time. On 7 February 1984, the number of detainees was 1 856, consisting of 1000 men and 856 women.

This figure was given to CCJP in 1984 by a detainee who was ordered by 5 Brigade to help others count the number of detainees. As the curfew had only been in effect a few days at this stage, and the phase of mass detentions was just beginning, it is very likely the number rose over the following weeks.

It is quite clear from the aerial photograph that Bhalagwe’s holding capacity was vast, and easily capable of absorbing at one time the highest figure currently claimed, that of 5 000. However, the exact number detained at Bhalagwe’s peak remains unconfirmed.

The first records of detentions in the Bhalagwe area date from the middle of 1982, coinciding with the detention exercises going on in Matabeleland North at that time. Reported detentions in 1982 and 1983 are few, however: it is in February 1984 that Bhalagwe becomes the centre of detentions throughout Matabeleland. The remains of Bhalagwe Camp were still visible in November 1996 (see photos page ).

The camp is ideally situated in terms of combining maximum space, with maximum privacy. There are natural barriers on three sides: Bhalagwe hill lies to the south, and Zamanyone hill demarcates its western edge. The eastern perimeter lies in the direction of Antelope Dam, and there are no villages between the camp and the dam. Water was piped in from Antelope Dam nearby, into water storage tanks. Although the camp is scarcely a kilometre from the main road running south of Bhalagwe hill, it is invisible to passers’ by.

People were trucked in from all over Matabeleland South to Bhalagwe, not just from Matobo. Women and men were separated. Different zones within the camp were designated to detainees who had been brought in from the different bases at Bulilimamangwe, Plumtree, Gwanda, Mberengwa, Sun Yet Sen and northern Matobo. There is even reference to detainees from Chipinge – these could have been potential MNR dissidents, although who they were exactly is not clear.

As well as being sorted by district, Bhalagwe survivors refer to new arrivals being sorted and designated holding rooms on the basis of their usual line of work and their employers, such as whether they worked in town or were communal farmers. At times school children were also sorted and kept separately. Detainees also refer to identity documents and letters related to employment being taken by 5 Brigade, and the latter destroyed.

Related Articles
1 of 80

Interviewees also refer to the fact that ex-ZIPRAs and ZAPU officials were kept separately from the ordinary civilians.

As detainees at any one time at Bhalagwe had been selected from a wide area, people in detention together seldom knew more than a handful of the other detainees. As most travel in the rural areas is on foot, people then (and now) did not know those who lived even a few villages away from their usual footpaths. One of the consequences was that when a person died in detention, possibly only one or two other inmates from the same village, and possibly nobody at all, would know that person’s name.

Inmates of Bhalagwe speak of daily deaths in the camp, but they are seldom able to name victims. They will merely comment how they witnessed people being beaten or shot, or how on certain mornings there would be people in their barracks who had died in the course of the night, as a result of the previous day’s beatings. The digging of graves is mentioned as a daily chore by some in early February.

However according to witnesses, at a certain point, although the date is not clear, these graves were dug up, and the bodies taken away on the trucks. The empty grave sites were still clearly visible in November 1996. Other accounts refer to the nightly departure of army trucks, carrying away the dead and dying to an unknown destination. It is now believed that these people were disposed of in local mine shafts, and in 1992, human remains were found in Antelope Mine, adjacent to Bhalagwe. Other people speak of their belief that Legion Mine, near Sun Yet Sen, also contains human remains from the 1980s.

The ex-ZIPRAs and ZAPU officials were singled out and kept in a separate area, in small buildings with low rooves and no windows, although there were ventilation slats. They were also kept shackled throughout their detentions, unlike the other detainees, and were subjected to the most brutal torture.

Turn-over at Bhalagwe was high. The length of detentions varied greatly. Most people recount having spent a few days or weeks in Bhalagwe. Approximately one to two weeks seemed a common detention period. Some interviewees claim to have spent as long as six to nine months in detention here, but these tend to be the ex-ZIPRAs and ZAPU officials.

Women were commonly held a few days, unless selected as “wives” for the soldiers, in which case their detention might stretch to a few weeks.

If two weeks was assumed as an average stay, and a conservative turnover of 1000 every two weeks was assumed, it could be estimated that around 8000 people passed through Bhalagwe in the four months it operated at its peak. The turnover could have been nearer double this figure.

Whatever the length of detention, those detained were subjected to at least one brutal interrogation experience. The majority were beaten on more than one occasion. There is reference to electric shocks being administered by the CIO.

Some witnesses report making false confessions under torture, naming invented people as dissidents, only to be caught out the next day when they failed to remember their previous day’s testimony. Interrogations always involved accusing people of being dissidents or feeding dissidents or of failing to report dissidents. This was routine, with no evidence being cited. The sexual focus of much of the torture has already been mentioned, with widespread rape, genital mutilation and forced sex with animals.

Bhalagwe survivors have referred to a wide variety of physical tortures. One pastime for the 5 Brigade was to force large numbers of detained men and women, to climb on to branches of trees, until the weight of human bodies snapped the branch, sending everyone crashing to earth. People broke limbs as a result of this. Several interviewees comment on the way 5 Brigade laughed to see them suffer.

Another form of torture was to force three men to climb into a 2 metre asbestos drainage pipe. The ones on each end would be told to come out, and as they started to leave the pipe, the 5 Brigade would begin to beat them fiercely, causing the men to spontaneously pull back in to the pipe, crushing the third man who would be crowded in the middle. On occasion, this resulted in the man in the middle being crushed and kicked to death by his two panicking companions.

Detainees were fed only once every second day, when mealie meal would be dished up on dustbin lids, with between 10 and 20 people per lid. Sometimes people would be forced to eat without using hands, for the amusement of 5 Brigade.

People were given half a cup of water a day each. Detainees had to dig toilets, wash army clothes and pots, and chop firewood in between their interrogation sessions. Interrogations used to begin at 5.30 a.m. every day.


G.S.W – Gunshot Wound MASS DETN – Mass Detention ( 50 villagers estimated)


DEAD: 16 plus others implied MISSING : 10 TORTURE: 70 ASSAULT :342 (includes 104 from truck accident) MASS BEATINGS:12estimate 600 villagers beaten RAPED:13 plus others implied G.S.W: 3 DETAINED:136 MASS DETN:8estimate 400 villagers detained PROPERTY BURNT:3 homesteads


DEAD: 102plus others implied MISSING: 20 TORTURE:1plus others implied ASSAULT: 141 MASS BEATINGS:13 estimate 650 villagers beaten RAPED:2plus others implied G.S.W: 1plus others implied DETAINED:28 MASS DETN:10estimate 500 villagers detained PROPERTY BURNT:31 homesteads




DEAD:183plus others implied MISSING:39plus others implied TORTURE:71plus hundreds implied ASSAULT:540 MASS BEATINGS:27estimate 1350 villagers beaten RAPED:17plus hundreds implied DETAINED:224 MASS DETN:18estimate 900 villagers detained PROPERTY BURNT:35 5.VILLAGE BY VILLAGE SUMMARY

NOTE: Numbers in brackets: indicate source numbers of BLPC interviews from which information was derived. ** indicates source document is in a CCJP file **** indicates an incident involving dissidents. For all other offences, the perpetrators are army units, or Govt agencies such as the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), or Police Support Unit (SU). 5 Brigade (5B) may be assumed as perpetrator unless another unit is mentioned.

Matobo has been divided into three regions for the purposes of this summary. While there appear to be some discernible patterns of difference in the experience of one region from another in this case study area, this could be the consequence of the fact that interviewing was not as wide-spread as in the first cast study area.

Current differences, such as the apparently large number of dead in the central region, might balance out with more thorough interviewing. It was noteworthy that before interviewing took place in September 1996, all the archival and academic information from all sources had been placed on the data base, and had revealed only 47 named dead in Matobo.

The process of interviewing and assessing in terms of “village”, increased this figure to over 220 in the space of four weeks. This represents a five-fold increase: many of the dead which were included at this stage were numbered dead indicated with full details of where and when, from the CCJP archives.

This is perhaps an indication of what might happen to the current figures for the dead in other districts where there is currently little named data available, if interviewing and village by village assessment took place.


MISS:Missing TORT:Tortured ( physical methods other than beatings) ASS:Assaulted ( physical torture – beatings) DETN:Detention GSW:Gun Shot Wound

Gukurahundi Massacres: Number of Victims (Part 13)

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.