History Monday: Gukurahundi – Why soldiers deserted Part 2

Hi, this is from Nehanda Radio and a continuation from last History Monday

There were also repeated speeches by Government officials linking ZAPU to dissidents.

In addition, from 1982, ex ZIPRA combatants – and not just deserters – increasingly faced persecution: ex ZIPRA who had been formally demobilized and those still in the army were increasingly subjected to arrest and harassment. Detention camps were established at St Paul’s in Lupane, at Tsholotsho, at Plumtree airstrip, and at Bhalagwe in Kezi, where the CIO interrogated ex-combatants.

Within army battalions, tensions ran high: ZANLA and ZIPRA each suspected the other of concealing arms, and ZIPRA members noticed the escalating arrest and disappearance of cadres from their ranks. The response of ZIPRA ex-combatants and ZAPU officials to this was varied: many fled the country to become refugees in Botswana or Zambia, or to find work in South Africa, and some formed bands of armed dissidents.

Some of those who fled to Zambia were assisted by the UNHCR to escape to various European countries, while others were pursued and killed by Zimbabwean Government agents. Those who left frequently lost property left in the country, and many have never returned. According to Alexander:

…interviews with ZIPRA guerrillas consistently indicated that their persecution at this time, rather than the political rift, was the key in causing mass desertions. Many felt they had little choice but to flee or take up arms again to save their lives.

The dissidents themselves reveal that the 1980s war was one with no clear goal or direction. In the words of one dissident:

“… in the 1980s war, no one was recruited, we were forced by the situation, all of us just met in the bush. Each person left on his own, running from death.”

Another researcher who has interviewed dissidents in the 1990s, recorded comments which confirm the idea that self-preservation was the strongest motive ex ZIPRA had in becoming dissidents.

“We wanted to defend ourselves personally. Our lives were threatened.”

“Apart from defending ourselves, there was very little we wanted to achieve.”

“We were threatened. That was why I decided to desert.”

Those who deserted or demobilized with the simple intention of going home to start their lives again found themselves driven away by the arrival of 5 Brigade.

“They were hunting ex ZIPRA members…and if they found [them], they killed those people.”

“If you say that you have been in the army, they would take you.”

“Some of us who demobilized, thought it best to return home because at least you could live in your own house. But little did we know that we were coming to a much worse situation.

“I did not even have time to spend my demob money before I had to leave to go to this second war…. Since you were a demobilized ZIPRA ex-combatant, they would immediately find you guilty and level you [i.e. kill you] as a dissident.”

In direct contrast to the Government’s claims that dissidents were being supported by ZAPU, dissidents express a sense of “abandonment by their leaders, who were often in jail or who actively dissociated themselves from, and condemned, their activities.” At the same time, the dissidents “maintained their loyalty to ZAPU and tenaciously clung to their liberation war identity as ZIPRA guerrillas.”

This loyalty expressed itself in the attempts of the dissidents to echo ZIPRA command structures and ethics, even though they lacked high level political or military leaders and were few in number.

Operational Zones

In late 1983, the dissidents divided Matabeleland and parts of the Midlands into three operational regions, in accordance with ZIPRA principles. The existence of Super ZAPU was a factor which encouraged the other dissidents to organize themselves along the lines of ZIPRA command structures, in order to help undermine and separate Super ZAPU from themselves.

The regions were as follows.

1. The Western Region, mainly Tsholotsho and Bulilimamangwe, which ran from the Victoria Falls railway line to the Plumtree railway line, and was under the command of a dissident called Tulane.

2. The Northern region, mainly Kwekwe, Lupane and Nkayi, which ran from the Victoria Falls Bulawayo railway line east to Silobela, and was under the command of three successive dissidents, first Gilbert Sitshela, then Mdawini, then Masikisela.

3. Matobo, Insiza, Gwanda and Beitbridge formed the Southern region, from the Plumtree railway line east to Mberengwa. One dissident interviewed commented that a Matobo unit was allowed to make contact with this southern structure only in 1986, because of fears of Super ZAPU. This region was under the command of a man called “Brown” in 1987.

Each region had a commander and a few platoons of 15 to 30 men, with sections of around five.

The dissidents faced operational problems: shortage of ammunition was a major concern, and this in turn led to a defensive strategy, with most dissident activities being restricted to night-time attacks or forays into villages for food, followed by hurried retreats and then lying low during hours of daylight to avoid being detected by troops. “What is five bullets against an army?” commented one dissident.

The dissidents’ commitment to seeing themselves as ZIPRA throughout this time, in spite of the absence of direct instruction from ZAPU, was instrumental not only in the swift demise of Super ZAPU, but also in the quick and orderly surrender after the Amnesty, when the dissidents obeyed the call of senior ZAPU officials that they should lay down their arms.


  1. Nehanda Radio (2012) ‘Gukurahundi Massacres: Why ZIPRA soldiers deserted ZNA (Part 5)’

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