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TSHOLOTSHO, ZIMBABWE - On Thursday, Zimbabwe marked the anniversary of its 1980 independence from Britain. The anniversary coincides with efforts to heal the wounds brought on by state-sanctioned massacres in the 1980s.

Some 20,000 people were massacred during the presidency of Robert Mugabe, human rights organizations say. One of the most affected areas is Tsholotsho, a rural district about 600 kilometers southwest of the capital, Harare. There, people are opening up about reburial efforts and requesting compensation from the government.

Melwa Ngwenya, stands in front of one of a shallow
Melwa Ngwenya stands near a grave holding the remains of his son Sibangani, killed in February 1983 in Tsholotsho, Zimbabwe. Ngwenya seeks compensation for the state-sanctioned massacres known as Gukurahundi.

Local resident Melwa Ngwenya says a recent decision by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration – to allow victims in shallow or mass graves to be reburied – is not cause for celebration on this Independence Day. Ngwenya says his son was beaten to death during the massacres when Mnangagwa was state security minister. The killings were known as Gukurahundi.

According to Ngwenya, the army assaulted his son, Sibangani, who died along with eight others in February 1983. They were buried in a shallow grave about five kilometers from the family home.

“I don’t usually come to this place,” Ngwenya said, standing at Sibangani’s grave site. “… For the pain and sorrow to go, I have to be given something to console me. A two-bedroom house will console my spirit that, yes, my son died.”

Nearly four decades after Zimbabwe’s independ
Women wait to collect water at a borehole in Zimbabwe’s Tsholotsho District, April 18, 2019.

?Gukurahundi debate

Under Mugabe’s rule, people were persecuted for discussing the massacres, and reburial of the victims was prohibited. On the eve of Independence Day, his successor, Mnangagwa, said that citizens were now free to talk about Gukurahundi.

“The question of Gukurahundi – personally, I don’t see anything wrong [with] debating it in newspapers, on television,” the president said on state TV. “… Actually, it’s critical that we have that debate. Some of the issues could’ve been resolved a long time back. ... Gukurahundi has nothing to do with other people. It is an internal matter which has happened among us Zimbabweans, which we must discuss among ourselves.”

But Ngwenya, still grieving for his son, is skeptical. “He is not sincere,” the 80-year-old said of the president. “He is blindfolding us. He is trying to silence us because we want compensation.

“I want to have a place to mourn my son,” he said, saying it should be “a permanent structure, something to stay in.”

Calling for compensation, Ngwenya added, “If he {Mnangagwa] cares about our cries and if the government cares about us and has sympathy, it must build me at least a two-bedroom house.”

Mbuso Fuzwayo, secretary of Ibhetshu Likazulu a ri
Mbuso Fuzwayo, of the rights group Ibhetshu Likazulu, says it’s not enough just to lift a ban on reburying Gukurahundi massacre victims.

?Only half of the issue

The rights organization Ibhetshu Likazulu has been vocal in calling for addressing the Gukurahundi issue. The group's secretary, Mbuso Fuzwayo, says Mnangagwa has to deal with more than just allowing people to discuss the massacres and reburials openly.

“It is not those who are in mass or shallow graves who are going to be buried. Everyone will have peace when he knows where his father, daughter, son is lying,” Fuzwayo said. Mnangagwa “doesn’t talk about women who were raped. He is talking about half of what happened. Gukurahundi is complex.”

Now it remains to be seen if the government has the will and funds to accommodate the people’s demands on Gukurahundi.