History Monday : Gukurahundi – CIO and Fifth Brigade Part 3

Hi, this is sourced from Nehanda Radio and a 1997 report commissioned by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace. This is also a continuation of last History Monday.


The most notorious detention center 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 (see page ) 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 ZIPRA incorporated into the Zimbabwe National Army.

At some point in 1982, the ZIPRA 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 center for ex ZIPRA and others from mid 1982 onward, when the anti ZIPRA sweep in the wake of the tourist kidnapping gained momentum.

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 – 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 metre 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.

The first records of detentions in the Bhalagwe area date from the middle of 1982, coinciding with the detention exercises going on in Matabeleland North at that time. Reported detentions in 1982 and 1983 are few, however: it is in February 1984 that Bhalagwe becomes the center of detentions throughout Matabeleland. The remains of Bhalagwe Camp were still visible in November 1996 (see photos page ).

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.

People were trucked in from all over Matabeleland 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 – 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 ZIPRA and ZAPU officials were kept separately from the ordinary civilians.


MISS:Missing TORT:Tortured ( physical methods other than beatings) ASS:Assaulted ( physical torture – beatings) DETN:Detention GSW:Gun Shot Wound



  1. Nehanda Radio (2012) ‘Gukurahundi Massacres: The 5 Brigade and CIO (Part 12)’

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