SIPEPA, Tsholotsho – Justin Tshuma was working in Bulawayo when reports of mass killings in the Matabeleland countryside by the Fifth Brigade started reaching him with worrying regularity.
The 32-year-old grew increasingly concerned for the safety of his wife, Thembi Ngwenya, 21, and their two-year-old son who were now living under a curfew in the village of Nkwalini in Sipepa, as soldiers carried out atrocities against the local population.
Having collected his family, Tshuma made a dash for the railway station for the trip back – but he did not make it.
They were cornered by soldiers, shot dead in their stomachs and their bodies dumped just meters from the railway tracks. They spared the boy. The soldiers moved on to their next kill, leaving the police to clear up after them.
Local villager Bernard Mpofu, who later changed his surname to Mahlangu, remembers how two police officers came to his home, and ordered him and two other villagers to bury the two bodies.
They dug up a shallow grave near the railway line and buried the couple together with all their possessions they had time to take from the home they were turning their backs to – an umbrella and a Supersonic radio.
On Sunday, Tshuma and Ngwenya were exhumed under a process facilitated by the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC) after one of the chief architects of the genocide, Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa, okayed a programme of exhumations and reburials 36 years after a crime for which no-one has been punished.
Some 20,000 people were killed and thousands more displaced during the Gukurahundi genocide, human rights groups say.
The exhumation was conducted by Ukuthula Trust, an expert organisation in the field of pathology, and attended by the couple’s family members and local villagers.
Alec Mcetshwa Sibanda, the local village head, said: “It’s necessary for the Gukurahundi perpetrators to seek forgiveness from victims, and heal their wounds.”
Mnangagwa, who was security minister when the Fifth Brigade was deployed in Matabeleland ostensibly to hunt down dissidents who had refused to lay down arms after Zimbabwe’s independence from colonial rule in 1980, has never apologised for his role.
He has asked the NPRC to lead efforts to issue identity documents to the children of massacre victims who were rendered stateless after losing one or both parents, and have been denied the documents because they could not produce death certificates. The NPRC will also oversee burials – but the government is mum on justice for the victims.