History Monday: Gukurahundi -Forms of Organized Violence Part 3

Hi, this is from a 1997 CCJP report and a continuation from last week


Deprivation is separated from psychological torture in the Southern African setting because it happens very frequently that people are detained in circumstances that lead to ill-treatment, but where the intention is not deliberately to use the detention as torture. For the victim, however, the effect of the deprivation can be the same as torture. The point here is that torture is not just a matter of what was in the mind of the perpetrator or the person doing the detention, but it is also a question of what the victim believed was happening.

Deprivation should be understood as representing extreme stress, frequently causing exceptional discomfort or pain.

Deprivation covers a variety of different experiences, summarized below in Table 2.


TYPES OF DEPRIVATION (From Reeler. 1995))

In-communication, minimal food and comfort: overcrowding for more than 2-3 days.

Lack of water (more than 48 hours).

Immobilization, restraint, total darkness for more than 48 hours.

Lack of sleep (less than 4 hours per night).

Lack of needed medication or medical care.

Again this is not an exclusive list, but it covers the kinds of treatments that are forbidden by most human rights conventions or conventions relating to the treatment of prisoners or detainees. Furthermore, these forms of abuse can be very difficult to assess in many countries where the above forms of ill treatment are so common as to be felt that they are “normal” methods of treating prisoners. Patients will frequently be accustomed to these methods, or know that they are routinely practiced, so that they will not remark upon them for themselves.


Deprivation has long-term effects, and we must mention both the specific deprivation suffered by those who were detained, and the more general effects of the food embargo and curfews. To deal with the first, we must here mention the effects of the detention in Bhalagwe, which was distinct from the interrogation centers such as Stops Camp.

Detention on its own may not have adverse consequences, but combined with psychological torture and deprivation, long term adverse consequences become more likely.

One obvious consequence for those who have experienced detention, is a deep fear of authorities and places from where authorities exercise their power: police stations, offices, and the like. Many survivors are likely to have strong anxiety at having to enter such places, or having to attend any official gatherings. Political rallies, voting, and similar events are quite likely to bring back strong post-traumatic responses. Furthermore, those who suffer psychological disorders as a consequence of their detention, may well retain traumatic memories of their detention, and these will be all the more powerful if detention was accompanied by torture or the witnessing of torture.

Bhalagwe Camp appears to be the one setting where specific deprivation occurred: conditions here were designed and enforced in a way to induce maximum discomfort. Those detained at Bhalagwe in the first day or two, before the camp was full, have reported that in spite of the fact that there were holding sheds standing empty, detainees were deliberately crowded in to a few sheds, to the point where there was virtually no space to sleep at night. Water and food were also rationed. The following sworn statement was made by a 19 year-old boy to CCJP on the 8 March, 1984. Other archival statements and statements made in 1996 confirm and further detail conditions at Bhalagwe. (see Part Two, II and a further statement on Bhalagwe, page following).

On 7 February (1984) in the evening we were taken by truck to Bhalagwe Camp. We reached Bhalagwe around 5 p.m. having left around 3 p.m. When we arrived we found many people at Bhalagwe, some of whom were being beaten.

We were separated men from women into barracks to sleep. In each barracks soldiers were counting up to 136 people, and if there were not 136 others would be brought in to make up the numbers.

We were arranged in three rows, two rows along the walls and one row in the middle of the building. We slept on our sides because we were told to squeeze since there was no room. We slept in our clothes with no blankets. We were not allowed to go out to the toilet at night, but in the morning we could do so under escort.

On Wednesday morning about 8 a.m. we were taken out one by one to another barracks building where we were either beaten or given electric shocks. When the number got up to five we were then taken back to our barracks.

I myself was only beaten, but I saw others being given electric shocks, and when they fainted, water was thrown on them. What I saw is that they put a wire into the mouth of the victim which is secured by strings that are attached to his ears. The other wire is put at his back. This second wire is placed on and off the back of the person. Four people in army uniform, two men and two women did the electric torturing while the victim was lying down.

There were many barracks where they were taking people for beating and electric shock.

Six school boys of whom I was one, plus two soldiers counted the women. This is how I came to know there were 856 women in the camp. This counting took place on 11 February in the morning. Then later the same day four soldiers and six schoolgirls counted the men. After this the soldiers announced to us that the total number of men in the camp was one thousand, and that of women eight hundred and fifty six. The soldiers announced to both men and women these final figures.

The prisoners from Sun Yet Sen were assigned to two barracks while those from Matopo, Plumtree, Gwanda and Belingwe(Mberengwa) were assigned one barracks each.

They brought us to Bhalagwe to get information about dissidents. Questions about this were asked during the beatings.

In the morning we used to dig graves, dig toilets, wash army clothes, wash pots, fetch firewood.

We were given food and water to drink only on alternative days, i.e. skipping one day when we got neither food nor water. The young men dug the graves, and the old people buried those who died each day in the camp. Those who died must have died because of beatings and electric shock. I saw two in my own sleeping barracks who were found dead one morning.

I was at the camp from 7 – 17 February. Until I left we were being beaten every day.

On 16 February, all school children were made to sit according to their respective schools and home areas, counted, and sent back to barracks.

On 17 February, all school children were told that we were going home. Then trucks took us to our homes for going to school.

In Bhalagwe camp the barracks had asbestos walls and asbestos roofs. Because I knew the place, I know that there were neither soldiers nor prisoners at this camp before the curfew was imposed in February.

At the camp I pretended to be a student, although I had left school after Form 1, end of 1983, because I had heard in other areas the soldiers tended to treat scholars slightly better.

I came to Bulawayo by army puma on 17 February because I had told them I was schooling in Bulawayo.

When I left home there was widespread hunger. Stores were closed; no buses were running except government transport. Soldiers were harassing people. I have since heard that some people were dying of hunger. I heard this from a teacher who had come to buy food at the end of February.

The data relating to Bhalagwe may bear some comparison with genocide survivors, such as those from the Nazi era or Cambodian survivors from the Pol Pot regime. The data from both these periods indicate very high rates of morbidity among survivors. However, those at Bhalagwe were usually detained for a few weeks or months, as opposed to years.

Even within these few weeks , detainees would suffer torture, deprivation, witness executions and torture, and suffer massive psychological abuse, ethnic in its focus. Their detention was also occurring in the context of a larger and more sustained attack on all living in their region at that time.

The most outstanding example of deprivation in the 1980s, because it affected so many people, was the use of the food embargo, denying access to food and other commodities and services during the early months of 1984. This resulted in the intimidation and near-starvation of 400 000 civilians. While drought is a common experience in Matabeleland, the food embargo clearly stands out in people’s memories as a separate type of experience – that of state induced hunger.

The curfew months were also accompanied by rallies at which specific threats were made: it is likely that many were deeply traumatized by these experiences, and it is probable that the whole process of drought relief that has been so common-place in the southern parts of Zimbabwe brings back traumatic memories for many survivors. The following speech was made at a rally, 3 weeks after the food embargo had been in force.

CCJP have it on file as a sworn statement, dated 8 March 1984.

On Thursday, 23 February (1984), the soldiers called a meeting at Sibomvu (in Gwanda district, Mat South). I went there. The soldiers were under the shade of a big Ntenjane tree while the people sat around in the sun. The meeting was from 12 to 4 p.m.. After that they told us there would be no curfew that evening because some people had come from very far.

Their leader told us that his name was Jesus. “I am one of the leaders of the Gukurahundi”, he said.

These are some of the things he said at the meeting: he had some gallons of blood in his car. The blood came from people. His life is to drink human blood. He wanted more blood because his supply was running low. They had come to this place to kill, not to play. They had come to kill the Mandebele because the dissidents were found only in their area and not in Mashonaland.

Commander Jesus said he found his boys doing nothing – beating up people instead of killing them. He did not mind thousands of people being killed.

“You are going to eat eggs, after eggs hens, after hens goats, after goats cattle. Then you shall eat cats, dogs, and donkeys. Then you are going to eat your children. After that you shall eat your wives. Then the men will remain, and because dissidents have guns, they will kill the men and only dissidents will remain. That’s when we will find the dissidents.

Commander Jesus spoke in Shona while one of the soldiers translated into Ndebele.

The ordinary soldiers are better. They go around nicely asking about dissidents and then they go their way. If these ordinary soldiers came we would be prepared to tell them the truth.

But with 5 Brigade, truth or lies, the result is the same.

Experiences at such rallies, or detention experiences, could very easily have caused Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (see section following) in the sufferers, both acutely at the time, and chronically in continued disorder since.

Apart from the deliberate policy of deprivation embodied in Bhalagwe and in the food embargo, there were instances in the 1980s when deprivation existed, but probably unintentionally so. As previously pointed out, “normal” detention conditions even when not deliberately worsened by the authorities, often resulted in deprivation and torture to those experiencing them. Those detained, for example at Stops Camp in Bulawayo, have reported appalling detention conditions, including overcrowding and lack of sanitation and food, but it can not be concluded that this was the result of a deliberate policy: it was more likely the result of indifference to the situation of detainees.

Sleep deprivation was a consequence of the week-end long pungwes held in Matabeleland in 1983/4, although it is unlikely that rallies resulted in less than 4 hours’ sleep a night. Mission staff reported their concern at the effect of these enforced gatherings on their school-age children, who were exhausted by Monday morning after a weekend of forced attendance at rallies, where they were not only deprived of sleep and recreational time, but were subjected to having to witness violence and verbal abuse (CCJP archives).



  1. Nehanda Radio (2013) ‘Gukurahundi Massacres: Types of Physical Torture (Part 14)’

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