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Gukurahundi and rape orgies




PUBLIC spectacles of rape have been described by Gill et al. (2009: 28, 33) as “an undertaking to break the bodies and identities of the community, through the bodies of the community’s women”.

In Zimbabwe, entire villages were ordered by the soldiers of the Fifth Brigade to attend all-night gatherings known as a “pungwe.” In the context of the violence of Operation Gukurahundi, the pungwe “not only represented an alien hegemonic culture but was a purveyor of forced indoctrination and a space where the military committed violent atroci-ties against civilians” (Maedza, cited in Ndebele 2021).

Ninety-four per cent of the participants of this study were forced to attend the overnight pungwe’s of Operation Gukurahundi and corroborated that multiple perpetrator rape (MPR) (Horvath 2009) was a key feature of such occasions, and central to the demeaning destructive and genocidal effect of these gatherings of terror and death, which were all pervasive during the peak periods of Gukurahundi violence between 1983 and 1984.

Of note is that MPR was not restricted to the large public night-time gatherings of the pungwe; the strategy of MPR was simultaneously a ritual of degradation and physical harm in rural villages during daylight hours as well as in the dark of the night.

Buhle was only 19 years old and living with her family in Matabeleland North when the soldiers of the Fifth Brigade “came into the village armed with AK-47s, in camouflage and in red berets.”

She recounts how in public and full view of the village community: “I was raped again and again that day by 16 of them, they took turns. I was bleeding. They only spoke Shona. I thought they would stop but they continued raping me even though I was bleeding”.

This strategy of public spectacles of MPR in villages to the physical dam- age of the victim continued unabated as confirmed by the interviews with survivors. Indeed, the same pattern is detectable over one year in later Matabeleland South. There were about 1000 people living in the area where Nomvula (24 years old, MS) lived.

Most girls were raped. The soldiers would come to our homes and say “You! You must be our wife — it is you.” We knew this meant we were going to be raped by these soldiers.

Our village was near the Shashani river so sometimes, my sisters and I, we slept on the riverbanks, we ran away from home so they couldn’t keep raping us.

Survivors consistently reported how soldiers repeatedly went door-to-door in villages at night, forcing women to have sex with a different soldier each night. As a result, many tried to flee the areas where MPR was relentless. Those who did man-age to flee continued to be targeted with sexual violence. Melawami (19 years old, MS) recalls:

Because all the females were being raped, many families sent their daughters, wives, aunts away to Bulawayo for protection. Other neighbours did that too. The Fifth Brigade called our families to a meeting and told everyone they must call all their daughters to come home from Bulawayo.

They were then badly beaten and left with broken bones. The daughters all came home, and it was terrible. They were all attacked, and these daughters were all raped.

Not all episodes of MPR were public spectacles. With deleterious effect, immeasurable numbers of women and girls subjected to MPR were forcibly removed by the military from their villages and held in sexual servitude in small mobile tented remote camps established close to villages, often on riverbanks, at schools, Christian mission stations, police stations and other government stations in rural Matabeleland. There they were forced to cook for those incarcerating them as well as being subjected to multiple rapes. Others were transported to established military bases in large army trucks, each capable of carrying scores of victims.

Charles (17 years old, MN) vividly recalls how women were removed from villages and sexually enslaved in the military camps occupied by the Fifth Brigade.

They came and took away all the females from each village in the area. If there were five women, they would take five. If there were 20 women, they would take 20. There were junior and senior soldiers. The senior soldier would order the junior ones to take the ones selected for rape. He’d say, “okay take 1, 2, 3, they count, 1, 2, 3, take them, let’s go!” They would then walk them to where their vehicles were in the distance. They left their vehicles a distance from the village and walked in as they knew that once people see and hear the sound of a vehicle, they would run away and scatter. They took these ladies away in their vehicle for rape.

Not all returned.

In the very early stages of Operation Gukurahundi in Matabeleland North, a “nurse of [the] mobile unit” (NGO Report 1983: 23) was raped. She was “taken to 5 Brigade camp and repeatedly raped for 4 days” (ibid.).

It was well-known to the survivors of this study that those with status in their communities, including teachers and nurses of the Catholic church missions, were amongst some of the first to become preyed upon by the security forces in Matabeleland. Shelton’s memories of the state’s targeting of a Christian mission near his village in Matabeleland North was indistinguishable to patterns identified in other districts of the province, and also those of Matabeleland South. He retold how “[t]he Sisters in that mission were called outside of the mission, they were all raped.

Even the nurses there would get raped” (15 years old, MS). Menzi (12 years old, MS) knew the seven or eight teachers at his primary school. “One morning [he] arrived at the school and found that the female teachers had been raped during the night. Guys [Fifth Brigade] came with guns and they raped the teachers.”

That the genocidaires of Zimbabwe between 1983 and 1984 prioritised the sub- jugation and destruction of those with status and education within the collectivity is not a pattern of behaviour unique to Gukurahundi.

The systematic destruction of leading figures of a society or a group, as observed throughout Gukurahundi was a tactic employed in the Armenian Genocide, the Cambodian Genocide, the German-Soviet occupation of Poland and during the conflicts of the Former of Yugoslavia (Gratz 2011).

The research undertaken has provided new insights into the age distribution of those targeted for rape and other forms of sexual violence during Operation Gukurahundi. It was remarkable that during individual interviews, the survivors were in overwhelming agreement that in villages where the Fifth Brigade arrived, it was a rare occurrence for any female aged between 15 to 25 to escape being raped on multiple occasions.

Nomalanga (17 years old, MN) affirmed that many were raped, especially the girls who were 17, 18, 19, 20. I think every girl in our village of that age was raped. It was only sometimes that the older women were raped. It is so hard to talk about it in our community.

Children and young girls were not exempt from sexual harm and form a significant cohort of those subjected to MPR. In both Matabeleland North and Matabeleland South, schoolgirls were removed from their schools by force, always overseen by the senior officer in charge who chose those to be raped. School-age children were removed from their villages and schools to be detained in dedicated centres of rape within established military camps where they were subjected to MPR on multiple occasions.

On Friday’s they [Fifth Brigade soldiers] would take those girls from the school that were age 14 and above, yes, for whole weekends.

They took them away in trucks to Jolotsho [MN] where their main camp was, and they would make them sing the whole night and they were raping those girls. They would bring them back, but some disappeared. Some never came back to school. My two sisters were involved. (Londiwe, 12 years old, MN).

The evidence of the forced removal of school children for the purposes of sexual servitude gathered from participants is corroborated in Breaking the Silence, which reveals how on one occasion over 50 schoolgirls were removed from their school to the Fifth Brigade camp.

“They were raped repeatedly over the next few months, until the army left the area. Some fell pregnant and others ran away and never went back to school” (CCJP & LRF 1997: 105).

On another occasion, the Fifth Brigade arrived at a school in Matabeleland North and removed all pupils aged over 14 years. In one case they removed over 60 pupils. The girls were all raped. Later some of them were ordered to have sex with some of the boys from the school under the watchful eye of the soldiers (CCJP & LRF 1997: 87).

The selection of children for multiple episodes of MPR was a pattern that would continue to be widespread over a year later, with the focus having shifted to the female children of MS. Sicelo (35 years old, MS) shared how [t]here were about 80 people living in my village. There was too much [a great number] of rapes. Even the young ones. Two of them were about 11. At that age, they were just too small. They were raped by three soldiers. I know them. Two of them passed away immediately.

The rape of children during the genocide is not novel and has been documented throughout the twentieth century, beginning with the Armenian Genocide from 1915 to 1916 (see Bryce & Toynbee, 2000: 92; Roy 1975: 66).

Banele (36 years old, MN) explained:

When these guys came to our area, they would take all the females there to rape—maybe from age 10 and above, they would take them to the bush. Not only 18, 19, 20 years of age, but small ages were raped. They would take more than ten children at a time from our village to rape.

There was usually about six soldiers who went to the bush with them. There was a senior commander — a soldier giving the instructions. They would go to a homestead and if there were five girls in the homestead, the commander would look at them to decide if they were fit for rape, then he would instruct “you go join that group” and “you go join that other group.”

Then they would go to another homestead and take the girls suitable for rape and join different groups, up to a number of 30 or more girls. They would then take them to the bush to where their camp was and keep them there for three, four or maybe four days.

Sometimes they would take them for a month. They had to be their wives, cooking for them, sleeping with them. The commander would take the girls to the tents and stay with them for 3–4–5 days.

About the writer: Dr Hazel Cameron is a criminologist and a lecturer of peace and conflict studies within the School of International Relations, University of St Andrews in Britain. Her main research interests include state crime; global elite bystanders to crimes of the powerful; political violence; torture; genocide; war crimes; and crimes against humanity.

Cameron has spent over a decade undertaking fieldwork in Rwanda which experienced a horrific genocide in 1994.

She has also researched on Zimbabwe’s 1980s massacres; crimes against humanity, which included torture, forced starvation, disappearances, displacements, and rape, known as Gukurahundi. 

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