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Unity Day My Foot Part II - The Notorious Bhalagwe Detention Center

24 Dec 2012 at 05:28hrs | Views

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 - CCJP Report. In my article last week I promised that I was gonna turn attention to the notorious Gukurahundi Genocide-era Bhalagwe Detention Center, which unfortunately, some fools amongst us are now proposing that it be turned into a "heroes acre". How in the world can a place that was used for the mass-murder of our people be turned into a heroes' acre? Who will be the heroes? We surely don't want that place turned into a "heroes acre" but into a Genocide Memorial Center to remember the thousands of our innocent people who lost their lives there! During this whole week we were fed the usually yearly drivel about how we are "one nation united by the Unity Accord", and yet in the midst of all that, we are denied our right to self-government and self-determination, Harare still rules over the whole country as an imperial center, our young people are denied jobs in their regions, resources are looted Scramble for Africa style to develop Mashonaland, our languages are suppressed and oppressed, ZBC has become Mashonaland Broadcasting Corporation, the Zimbabwe Republic Police has become Mashonaland Republic Police foisting Shona language on everyone else, and many such related problems that we face. Yet in the face of all this, some goon in Harare tells us about Unity Day. I say Unity Day my Foot! The Bhalagwe Detention Center The most notorious detention centre [during the Gukurahundi Genocide] 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 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 [ex-ZIPRA were accused by the government of kidnapping the tourists]. Horrible Detention Shelters Visible at Bhalagwe in May 1982, are 180 large, round roofed asbestos "holding sheds", each measuring approximately 12 meters by 6 meters, and 36 half-sized ones, measuring 6 meters by 6 meters. 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 √¢‚Ǩ‚Äú eleven 12 x 6 meter 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 meter 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. Beginnings and State of the Detention Center The first records of detentions in the Bhalagwe area date from the middle of 1982, coinciding with the detention exercises going on in Matebeleland 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 Matebeleland. The remains of Bhalagwe Camp were still visible in November 1996. 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 kilometer from the main road running south of Bhalagwe hill, it is invisible to passers' by. Origins of Detainees People were trucked in from all over Matebeleland 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 √¢‚Ǩ‚Äú 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. 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. Daily Deaths in the Camp 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 roofs 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 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. Forms of Torture at Bhalagwe 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 meter 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 Unity Day is Meaningless Until the Genocide is Address What a painful situation our people have had to go through. How then can this country be talking of Unity Day when it has refused to address the Gukurahundi Genocide and its after-effects? Surely this day is meaningless to us. At worst it is a celebration of the Gukurahundi Genocide, the callous murder of over 40,000 of our very innocent people by a Satanic Regime! The only worth compensation that we can accept is not a half-hearted apology (if one will ever come) or any amount of money, but what we can only accept is full self-government and self-determination through full-blown Federalism! 

Ndzimu-unami Emmanuel Moyo is a Justice Activist based in Plumtree and the author of two books, The Rebirth of Bukalanga: A Manifesto for the Liberation of a Great People with a Proud History; and Zimbabwe: The Case for Federalism. He can be contacted by email on   

Source - Ndzimu-unami Emmanuel Moyo
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