History Monday: Gukurahundi – CIO and Fifth Brigade Part 4

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

E. BHALAGWE (contd)

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.

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 ZIPRA 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 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.

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 metre 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.


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

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