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Documentation of Gukurahundi victims remains a pipe dream

Sisasenkosi Nyathi* (39) is engulfed by anger and pain as she recounts the details of her father’s death, who was callously murdered at his homestead in 1984 by members of the Fifth Brigade at the height of the Gukurahundi atrocities. 

She was only two years old at the time, barely able to understand what was happening around her but as she grew older, she was told how her father was gruesomely murdered in full view of her siblings.

Her mother, she says, who was heavily pregnant at the time, is lucky to be alive as she was also severely assaulted on the fateful day. 

Nyathi says her father was beaten to a pulp by the menacing soldiers before being tossed into a fire while her siblings were forced to stoke the fire as he screamed for help.

A little later, Nyathi narrated, her father was tied with wires and dragged to a mountain top behind their homestead in Matobo, pieces of flesh coming off his body before the soldiers shot him on the head to finish him off.

A few relatives who lived nearby who had witnessed the ordeal scurried to the mountain top covered the lifeless body with soil and stones and quickly returned to the homestead fearing the perpetrators would return and take more lives.

Such was the experience of people from Matabeleland and Midlands during the reign of terror between 1983 and 1987.

The International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) states that more than 20 000 people were killed during this period.

Victims of the mass murders were never given any decent burials, their families never got the chance to properly mourn and as a result no death certificates were issued for them.

This scenario made it impossible for surviving children to get birth certificates and national identity cards.

Some of the children were born out of rape. 

Nyathi told CITE that due to her father’s death, she and her younger sister could not get birth certificates and this affected their education.

“I only went as far as grade seven just so I could get basic education. My mother struggled to get birth certificates for me and my little sister who was born in 1984 shortly after my father’s death,” she said.

“My childhood has no colourful memories. Even as I joined my age mates going to school I knew I couldn’t get far,” she said before pausing a bit to recollect herself and wipe away tears from her eyes.

“I never wore a school uniform like the rest of the children, I never owned any school shoes. My mother could barely put food on the table for us.”

Dingilizwe Sibanda* from Lupane is also filled with bitterness and anger over the genocide which claimed both his parents in 1984.

He says the effects of Gukurahundi are still being felt decades after the end of the mass killings. 

“Look at the fruits of the brutality we faced. Right now, we struggle to get resources from the government which are supposed to sustain us. As we speak right now our area has over 800 homesteads but there are only six boreholes. How can they possibly know how much resources people need if a significant number is undocumented. The records they have are wrong,” Sibanda fumed.

Sibanda reiterated that efforts by the government to engage the victims and to convene meetings would not resolve anything because there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed.

“These talks won’t yield any results. We need action not talks. We have always been marginalised and that needs to be addressed. Look at the state of our schools, we do not have enough high schools around here. But they came and built a university. How will Lupane children benefit from that if they do not get basic education first? That institution will be filled with people from other provinces,” he said.

A report compiled by Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP) titled: Cursed with Statelessness: Consequences of Deprivation of National Identification Documents gave an insight into the challenges faced by Gukurahundi victims living without documentation.

Although the plight of citizens born in Zimbabwe to victims of Gukurahundi has been researched and findings shared with responsible state authorities, the new study discovered that their deprivation of access to birth certificates persists, leading to dire human rights violations associated with statelessness.

“These citizens of Zimbabwe have been forced to live a life of statelessness and if nothing is done fast to assist them to acquire birth certificates, passports and national identity documents the curse of statelessness will affect more generations,” states ZPP. 

The provisions of the Birth and Death Registration (BDR) Act and the regulations require citizens to bring proof of death certificates of their parents, which is impossible for children of Gukurahundi victims. 

ZPP indicated that the BDR Act is prohibitive, discriminatory, and disenfranchising as “it is impossible to produce a death certificate of a victim of Gukurahundi massacres and enforced disappearance.” 

Although the state has offered grace to the victims of Gukurahundi to register free of charge, the victims are afraid and intimidated noted, ZPP in the study.

Advocate Nqobani Sithole of the Abammeli Bamalungelo Abantu, a network of Human Rights Lawyers, accused the government of neglecting victims of Gukurahundi by not prioritising their documentation.

“These people are stateless in simple terms. They can’t go to school, can’t vote, and can’t access banking services. This is a violation of these people’s rights. They have been abandoned by their government. Imagine from the 1980s to date they have never been part of the voting process. They can’t select a leader they want,” said Adv Sithole.

“What is worse is that the party ruling them, the people in power, are the ones responsible for the pain they suffered. The current government created this situation for them. Although there have been talks of resolving this issue of documentation, so much time has elapsed with no action being taken.”

When conversations around resolving the issue of Gukurahundi began in the ‘Second Republic’ President Emmerson Mnangagwa met with the Matabeleland Civic Society (formerly Matabeleland Collective) at Bulawayo State House in 2019 and part of the meetings’ resolutions were to fast-track the issuance of birth certificates, national identity documents and death certificates to victims of the mass killings.

The process was meant to be launched in Bhalagwe, Matobo district, where most of the Gukurahundi killings took place.

In August 2021, Mnangagwa met with Matabeleland chiefs in Bulawayo and resolved to allow a victim-centred process and case by case exhumations and reburials, with traditional leaders taking a lead in their areas of jurisdiction.

CITE interviewed one of the chiefs who has been at the forefront of seeking justice for the victims, Gwanda traditional leader, Chief Khulumani Mathema on the progress that has been made thus far on the issuance of the national documents for the victims.

Chief Mathema reiterated that there was not much that had been done, citing that the government was not putting enough effort nor was it being sincere in having the matter resolved.

“The first step is to issue death certificates specifying the cause of death then we can talk of birth certificates and national identity cards,” said Chief Mathema.

“There has to be awareness campaigns which will alert people that there is the rollout of these documents. These victims should not be burdened by going to the offices but the offices should come to the people. That would show some sincerity and it would help them to heal properly.”

Chief Mathema accused the government of disregarding the feelings of the victims and making the issue of Gukurahundi about them instead. 

He said the government was not willing to acknowledge their responsibility of the atrocities yet the Fifth Brigade was deployed by the same.

“The reason why we are so convinced that the government is not willing to help the people is because they are making this whole thing about them. That is not how things are meant to be done. We are not healing the government here, we are healing the people,” said Chief Mathema. 

“President Mnangagwa issued a peace document which came with terms and conditions of how this was to be done which on its own defeats the whole purpose – how can a perpetrator set the tone for the victim, where is the peacebuilding mechanism there?

“As chiefs we have spoken but the government is not listening. I say they are not listening because the measurement of someone listening is seen through transforming things into reality. There are several countries that Zimbabwe can emulate in dealing with the massacre wounds. It should stick to best international practices if it seeks to succeed.”

Mbuso Fuzwayo, Secretary-General of Ibhetshu Likazulu, a pressure group from Matabeleland, highlighted that lack of documentation by Gukurahundi victims was adding salt to the injuries.

“The victims need to have documents if the healing process is to be achieved. These documents should also specify that these people succumbed to gunshot wounds during the Gukurahundi,” said Fuzwayo. 

“There is no sincerity in what they are doing. They want to talk on their own terms which defeats the whole purpose. Right now things are haphazard. One minute there is the NPRC dealing with the victims, the next we have chiefs. Nothing tangible has come even after the bringing in of chiefs because not all of them are for the same cause.”

The government is adamant that the efforts they are making are effective and the victims will be assisted in time.

Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, Virginia Mabhiza, told this publication that “a lot of progress” on the ground especially concerning the Registrar General’s office but due to Covid-19 restrictions the process had been stalled.

“The process of documenting the victims has begun and is underway. There were plans to start the process in Matabeleland South but due to Covid-19 the dates kept being changed. However, there is a lot of positivity from the government to see this process through,” she said.

“We are planning on engaging further with some of the traditional leaders who are responsible for the issues that are mostly involved but I can say there’s been a lot of progress on the ground especially concerning the Registrar General’s office.”

Deputy Minister of Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage, Ruth Mavhungu-Maboyi said the process is in motion and the ministry aims to document all outstanding citizens, not just the Gukurahundi victims.

“We have started on the process and have made some progress. We are not only targeting Gukurahundi victims but everyone who does not have documentation. The major constraint we face is a shortage of resources but efforts are being made to ensure that everyone is catered for,” said Mavhungu-Maboyi.

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