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Gukurahundi Massacres: Number of Victims (Part 13)


The figures in the HR Data Base are clearly a base-line set of figures which can only grow in the future. Only one district in Zimbabwe was fairly comprehensively researched for this report – namely Tsholotsho. In addition, a pilot study was conducted in Matobo.

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).

Both of these studies resulted in a dramatic increase in existing knowledge of how events unfolded in these two regions in the 1980s, and both extended the named data base considerably, and allowed the incorporation of numbered victims. Numbered victims are generally excluded from all other districts.

What was also noticeable in Tsholotsho was how the gap between numbered and named victims closed as interviewing progressed, and a larger proportion of named as opposed to numbered victims began to be reported.

The lower levels of offences evident in the other districts in Zimbabwe reflect the fact that extensive research has not been done in these regions, rather than reflecting that these districts were not severely affected by events.

While the compilers of this report do not claim to have any final answers in terms of real numbers of victims in the various categories of offence, some cautious suggestions can be made.

The basis of these suggestions will be discussed separately for each category of offence, with a clear difference being maintained between what may certainly be known at this stage, and what may further be supposed.


The HR Data Base has the following figures, for named victims: Dead:1437 Missing:354 Total:1791 To this can be added a minimum of 130 Tsholotsho dead and missing and a minimum of 133 Matobo dead and missing which became apparent when the `village by village’ summaries were collated.

This brings the definitely confirmed dead to 2052.

Deaths in Non-Case Study Areas in Matabeleland North: independent researchers in Lupane and Nkayi who have done extensive interviews for a different purpose in these regions in recent years, suggested that approximately 1300 dead would be a fair estimate for these two regions combined.

Their intention was not specifically to “count the dead” in these regions, and they have not collected names. Their estimates are based on ward by ward estimates given to them by councillors in the general course of their interviews on other topics, but they feel these estimates are, if anything, conservative, and exclude the missing.

As this estimate was put forward by researchers of proven integrity with a known understanding of events in these districts, and no possible motive for exaggeration or misrepresentation, it seems fair to consider including it in an estimate: this would add another 1000 to the figure for the dead, bringing it to around 3000+.

There is little known about deaths in other regions in Matabeleland North, although indications are that they were considerably less affected by 5 Brigade than Tsholotsho, Lupane and Nkayi. No comment or estimate will therefore be made about these regions.

Deaths in Matabeleland South: it has already been commented that the pilot study in Matobo, which was far from comprehensive, resulted in a five-fold increase in the numbers of dead and missing. Yet prior to the case study, the named dead for Gwanda, Matobo and Bulilimamangwe were all in the range of 40-50.

Judging from the CCJP archives and paralegal information, which is the only current source of data on Gwanda and Bulilimamangwe, these two districts were as severely hit in 1984 as Matobo. There are on archival files evidence of mass murders, mass graves, mass beatings and mass detentions in these two districts. We can also assume that the figure of 220 dead in Matobo is conservative, as interviewing here was limited.

In addition, there are the many eye witness accounts of Bhalagwe on file. These include both archival accounts and those recorded in the last few months. All are very consistent in referring to daily deaths at Bhalagwe. From mid-February, villagers adjacent to Antelope Mine also refer to nightly trips by trucks to the mine shaft, followed by the disposal of bodies and the throwing of grenades in afterwards.

There was a change in strategy on the part of 5 Brigade in 1984. They had apparently realised in 1983 that it was not possible to kill hundreds of well known people in front of hundreds of witnesses in their home villages, and expect the fact to remain hidden.

In 1984, the new strategy of translocating many thousands of civilians and grouping them at Bhalagwe, where everyone effectively became strangers, has made it much harder now to identify either exact numbers or names of the dead.

Most detainees did not know the names of those they were detained with. People can also not remember exact dates on which they witnessed a certain number of people beaten to death or shot, so it is not possible to sort out eye witness accounts in a way that prevents double counting of deaths.

One solution for those who wish to arrive at some idea of how many might have died at Bhalagwe, is to estimate 5 deaths a day, multiplied by 100 days, (Feb to May) and to decide that approximately 500 died at Bhalagwe. 5 deaths a day might well be too conservative, however.

The real number could be anything between 300 and 1000…. The inability to arrive at more accurate figures at this stage is a testimony to the effectiveness of the 1984 strategy in keeping deaths anonymous.

For example, one person interviewed, who was 16 years old when incarcerated at Bhalagwe, recounted how he personally helped dig the graves and helped carry and bury the corpses of 9 men, 7 of whom had been beaten to death and 2 of whom had been shot.

He did not know the name of a single one of these 9 victims, nor could he say exactly how many others had died during the 10 days he was there, except to say that they were “very many”. These dead were from all over Matabeleland South, and some were from Matabeleland North: only extensive interviewing in all districts will help resolve the issue of how many died at Bhalagwe.

Other evidence on the archives for Gwanda and Bulilimamangwe states that there are mass graves in both districts, mainly from 1984, but in the case of Bulilimamangwe, also from 1983, when parts of this district were adjacent to the curfew zone and affected by 5 Brigade in Matabeleland North.

Judging by the pilot study in Matobo, it seems fair to estimate at least several hundred deaths in each district. Only extensive further research will come up with more accurate figures.

In the rest of Matabeleland South, including Beitbridge, deaths also occurred, although in smaller numbers. No comment or estimate will be made on these.

Those who are concerned about putting a precise figure on the dead in Matabeleland South could choose a number between 500 and 1000, and be certain that they are not exaggerating.

Deaths in the Midlands: named and numbered dead and missing for the Midlands, suggest Gweru was worst hit with around 70-80 deaths, with deaths and missing for the whole Province currently standing at a conservative 100. Archival figures for unnamed victims suggest several hundred more deaths and disappearances – no more accurate suggestion can be made than this, without extensive further research.

Deaths According to The Chronicle: While it seems reasonable in the face of conflicting reports to disregard the “General Report” claims in respect of dissident offences, the “Specific Report” figures have been borne out in part.

Even this statement is not made without qualification: there were several occasions where recent interview data convincingly attributed offences to the army or CIO when The Chronicle attributed these offences to dissidents. However, in Tsholotsho, while the route to the final number may have differed, figures arrived at in interview data and in The Chronicle were fairly close in terms of how many people were specifically killed by dissidents.

In addition, there are some murders that can be uncontentiously attributed to dissidents in the non-case-study districts, and which have not been taken into estimate yet, including the deaths of commercial farmers.

The Chronicle may therefore be conservatively assumed to provide support for the deaths of at least 100 to 150 people at the hands of dissidents, which have not been factored in elsewhere.

FINAL ESTIMATE: The figure for the dead and missing is not less than 3000. This statement is now beyond reasonable doubt. Adding up the conservative suggestions made above, the figure is reasonably certainly 3750 dead. More than that it is still not possible to say, except to allow that the real figure for the dead could be possibly double 3000, or even higher. Only further research will resolve the issue.

The number of dead is always the issue in which there is the most interest, wherever in the world human rights offences are perpetrated. While such a focus is understandable, it should not be considered the only category of offence to give an indication of the scale of a period of disturbance.

From the point of view of this report, compilers are concerned with the plight of those still alive. Of course, the loss of a breadwinner compounds the plight for his/her survivors, and in this way the number of dead from the 1980s indicates the number of families having to survive without financial assistance from able-bodied husbands, wives and children.

But many other families who perhaps suffered no deaths were left with permanent health or emotional problems which, a decade later, have compounded seriously on their families in monetary and social terms.


The HR Data Base currently has on record 680 homesteads destroyed. A reading of the “village by village” summary of Tsholotsho will confirm that this figure is conservative. Researchers in Lupane and Nkayi have also referred to hut burnings, and the burnings of entire villages, particularly in Lupane. What this means in terms of final figures is hard to say: therefore no estimate will be made.

Properties were also destroyed in Matabeleland South which are not yet formally recorded, and the ZANU-PF Youth riots affecting the Midlands in 1985, and the property destruction resulting from this has been documented, for example in LCFHR. Readers of the report should therefore bear in mind that the figure of 680 homesteads destroyed is far from complete.

In addition, there was the damage caused by dissidents. The Chronicle reports a multitude of bus burnings and the destruction of dam and road building equipment. Cooperative ventures were also destroyed on occasion, and commercial farmers had livestock shot and property destroyed.

Again, to try to assess this now in precise monetary terms would be a complicated and somewhat arbitrary procedure. The section following (Part Three, II) on legal damages attempts to make this sort of assessment on ten specific cases only, to illustrate how such damage might be assessed.

Perhaps the most significant type of “property loss” to those in affected regions, is the fact that throughout the 1980s, when the government was investing in development projects in other parts of the country, Matabeleland was losing out, on the true premise that the disturbances made development difficult.


Possible numbers of detainees are also very difficult to assess at this stage. Some attempt was made in the case study on Matobo to estimate a figure for those detained at Bhalagwe.

Based on an average stay of two weeks, and an average holding capacity of 2000, it was assumed that any number of civilians between 8000 and double this figure could have passed through Bhalagwe. As some reports put the holding capacity at considerably higher than 2000 at its peak, this assumption does not seem unreasonable, but it is an assumption nonetheless.

Apart from Bhalagwe, both documents on file and lists of named victims in Chikurubi in 1985 suggest certainly hundreds and likely thousands of detainees over the period from 1982 to 1987.

The detention centres at St Pauls in Lupane and in Tsholotsho operated from mid 1982, and certainly hundreds were detained in 1982 alone. Africa Confidential refers to 700 detained at Tsholotsho in 1982, and St Paul’s detention centre was also large. There are also reference to 1000 detained in Bulawayo in March 1983.

In 1985 and 1986 there were further detentions, both before and after the general elections. Elected ZAPU officials were picked up in rural areas, and hundreds were detained in urban centres too. LCFHR refers to 1300 detained in Bulawayo in early 1985 and 400+ detained in Bulawayo in August 1985.

There are official documents signed by police confirming large numbers of detainees. For example, CCJP wrote to Nkayi Police station inquiring about the whereabouts of a certain man who had been detained. The police wrote back saying they had detained 80 people that day in Nkayi, and most had been subsequently released. They had no record of this particular man.

Again, there is no easy formula for arriving at a figure for detainees. It seems reasonable to assume at least 10 000 were detained, some for a few days and some for far longer, between 1982 and 1987. This is an assumption based on what is known now of the general unfolding of events, and the holding capacities of various detention centres.


Named torture victims, inclusive of those assaulted, stand at around 2000.

In addition to these named victims, the Tsholotsho case study identified 70 villages involved in mass beatings, and 4 mass beatings at railway sidings. The Matobo case study identified another 25 mass beatings.

This is a total of 99 known mass beatings. A figure of 50 per mass beating was decided on as reasonable (see Part One, II), which would mean 4950 further assault victims. This puts the total number of those fairly definitely known to have been physically tortured at around 7000.

Mass beatings were also a definite phenomenon of 5 Brigade behaviour in Lupane and Nkayi in Matabeleland North, and Silobela in the Midlands, as well as in Bulilimamangwe and Gwanda in Matabeleland South, but no estimate will be placed on how many people this may have affected.

In addition, reports of Bhalagwe make it clear that detention here was synonymous with beatings, usually daily. Physical torture of one kind or another was almost mandatory, not only at Bhalagwe but in all detention centres and jails.

Several thousand more beating victims could therefore safely be assumed, but precisely how many remains to be established.


The above estimates are offered merely as estimates. A careful reading of the Historical Overview will make it clear that the evidence on record supports the general claims being made here in terms of likely numbers of victims, and will in fact suggest that these claims are conservative. But only further comprehensive research will establish more accurate numbers for all categories of offence.

Gukurahundi Massacres: Types of Physical Torture (Part 14)

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.