BY LULU BRENDA HARRIS
After three decades of struggling to give their slain father a decent burial, the Nkala family from Lupane resorted to erecting a tombstone where the killers dumped his body in February 1983.
The family was desperate to find closure and they believed the erection of the tombstone in 2014 will put an end to the psychological torture.
Nehemiah Nkala, aged 41 at the time, was among scores of villagers from the Lupanda area that were gunned down by Fifth Brigade soldiers in one night of extreme terror.
The farmers’ crime, according to the soldiers, was that they were habouring dissidents that were sabotaging former president Robert Mugabe’s government.
Nkala’s family was lucky to identify his shallow grave at a neighbouring farm, but for others it might be a lifetime of trauma, as their relatives were dumped at a mass grave at the nearby Mkhombo Primary School.
For 31 years, Nkala’s family sought permission to exhume his remains without much luck and that door seemed shut in 2014 when former Local Government minister Ignatius Chombo told them in no uncertain terms to stop entertaining the idea of giving their father a decent burial.
“Our father was shot at a neighbour’s farm 7km from his home,” Nkala’s daughter, Siboniso Ncube said.
“At some point, the Mpofu family, which owns the farm, asked us to exhume his remains or mark the grave, so he may rest in peace.”
The family approached the local chief seeking permission to exhume Nkala’s remains, but Chombo’s response scuppered all their plans.
“At that point, we decided to erect a tombstone only,” Ncube, who was 11 when her father was killed, said.
The events of that fateful day, when her father was killed, are still vivid in her memory.
Ncube said she was playing with her siblings, while her mother was tending the fields when soldiers in red berets stormed their homestead.
The menacing soldiers asked Nkala to produce his identity card before they rained punches on him.
“They only stopped assaulting him when he started bleeding profusely, his face was swollen and was badly bruised,” Ncube recalled. “The soldiers left, only to come back later to take our father away.”
A few hours later, the family heard gunshots and at that point they feared for the worst.
The following morning, a neighbour delivered the tragic news. Nkala had been shot that night together with scores of other villagers.
Fortunately, the Mpofu family was able to point to a shallow grave where the soldiers had buried Nkala.
“We know there were several others who were killed with my father that night including some of our neighbours,” Ncube said. “There is a mass grave at Mkhombo Primary.”
A year after Nkala was killed, his family applied for a death certificate, but it was only issued in 2014.
The death record shows that he was “shot to death by security forces”.
Trauma took its toll on Nkala’s widow, who suffered a stroke in 1997 and was not able to witness the tombstone unveiling.
“We may demand compensation, but that will not bring back our father,” Ncube said when asked if a government payout would help them find closure.
The Nkala family’s story will resonate with thousands of people in Matabeleland and the Midlands, who are now reliving the horror days of the 1980s massacres after the government finally, gave them the nod to exhume the remains of their relatives buried in shallow graves.
Human rights groups say at least 20 000 people were massacred between 1983 and 1987 when the Fifth Brigade rampaged through Matabeleland and the Midlands hunting for the so-called dissidents.
However, the majority of the victims were civilian supporters of late vice president Joshua Nkomo and his Zapu party.
In March, President Emmerson Mnangagwa pledged that the government would facilitate the reburial of the victims of the pogrom known as Gukurahundi, a Shona term which, loosely translates to “the early rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rains”.
Mnangagwa also pledged that victims would be assisted to obtain identity documents and death certificates for their dead relatives after meeting civil society groups under the Matabeleland Collective.
Ncube said they were now looking forward to giving their father a decent burial, hopefully this year, even though they still have unanswered questions about the government’s new stance on the atrocities.
The family is keen to know if the government will provide any support for the exhumation and reburial.
In neigbouring Matabeleland South, the government’s new position came a year after Mvulo Nyathi’s family had moved to give him a decent burial over three decades after he was killed by the Fifth Brigade.
Nyathi from Silozwi in Matobo district was killed in 1984 after he was burnt all over the body with plastics.
His 10 year-old son Moffat was forced to take part in the gruesome torture.
Nyathi’s body was dumped at a sacred cave behind Silozwi Primary School, located about 2km from his homestead.
The family tried to give him a proper burial in 2002 but they were blocked by the government until Moffat approached Ukuthula Trust last year.
Ukuthula Trust, a non-governmental organisation, has for the past 20 years been helping victims of Gukurahundi find closure by helping them identify the remains of their relatives before giving them decent burials.
Nyathi’s remains were reburied at his homestead in August 2018 and the success story inspired Blessing Ngwenya from Tsholotsho to seek Ukuthula Trust’s professional help to solve a similar problem back home.
Her sister, Thembi (21) was gunned down by the Fifth Brigade soldiers together with her husband Justin Tshuma (32) in 1983, as they fled the simmering conflict in the Nkwalini area.
Their bodies, like those of thousands other Gukurahundi victims, were buried in a shallow grave.
Nearly four decades later, their remains were exhumed on April 28, 2019 after Mnangagwa’s announcement and the event attracted the attention of international media.
“Justin, who was working in Bulawayo, had come to collect his family after reports started filtering in that soldiers were killing and torturing people in the Sipepa area,” his younger brother, Amon Joseph recounted.
“The young couple had walked 19km from Justin’s home area to catch a train at Mlagisa Line but they were shot dead before they got to the station.”
The slain couple’s relatives said they were relived the exhumation had been finally done and they now look forward to giving Justin and his wife a decent burial.
“I cry often, but I am happy that we managed to find their bodies after 36 years,” Blessing said. “I praise God for guiding us and showing us the way.”
She said the couple’s only son, who was spared by the soldiers was three years old at the time, was now a family man with three children.
“This exhumation will bring peace and relief to Xolisani’s heart since he now knows what happened to his parents,” Blessing added.
National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC) chairperson, Justice Sello Nare said people that lost relatives during the killings were now free to give them decent burials.
“As the NPRC, we will spread the message here in Matabeleland North, South and the Midlands that we are now free to rebury our dead relatives in a decent way,” he said. “I know many people were not sure whether it was the government’s position that these reburials can now go ahead.
“People are now free to openly discuss Gukurahundi and I hope after witnessing this exhumation people will be freer.”
The archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Bulawayo Alex Thomas said before the government’s intervention, many people had resorted to working on their own to identify the remains of their relatives killed during Gukurahundi as frustration was now setting in.
“People have waited for a very long time,” he said. “Now that the NPRC is going around talking about Gukurahundi, people might be encouraged to do the reburials.
“Maybe it’s a start and we might move on.”
Thomas, whose church was central in exposing the atrocities, said the reburials on their own might not help the families find closure and urged the perpetrators to complement the healing process by apologising.
“Before an apology, there needs to be an acknowledgement that things didn’t go well,” he said. “It’s not easy to say ‘I am sorry’ but we need to say it.”
He said people were also mistaken to think that compensation would solve all problems.
“Something went wrong, our people suffered and they are wounded,” he said. “We saw people being tortured.
“There are many youngsters who were children at the time and saw their fathers being beaten and killed. Some don’t know where their fathers and brothers are.
“We need to address all these issues before we focus on development and lifting areas that remained underdevelopment (because of Gukurahundi).
“People want roads, schools, clinics and other facilities more than they want compensation.”
Paul Themba Nyathi the director of Masakhaneni Trust, an NGO that promotes peace and reconciliation, said the reburials will go a long way in helping families to find closure.
“There might be need for criminal prosecution on some cases, which is why expertise is required in all the exhumations associated with this episode,” he said. “I know that there is some law that deals with missing persons who if reported to the police become the business of law enforcement agents until their bodies are discovered.
“With respect to victims of Gukurahundi, my view is that, relatives of such persons should have an uncontested say on whether their remains should be exhumed or not.”
Nyathi said it was critical for exhumations that will happen after Mnangagwa’s order to be carried out by forensic experts to ensure that evidence of the killings is not destroyed.
Shari Eppel, the Ukuthula Trust director said exhaustive investigations are carried out before any exhumations to establish the identity of people buried in the unmarked graves.
For the Nkwalini couple, Eppel interviewed the relatives and an eyewitness only identified as Mahlangu.
Eppel said they normally took a bone for thorough analysis.
“The bones will tell us how old these people were at the time of death, probably with a fair degree of accuracy and cause of death,” she said.
Ntabazinduna traditional leader, Chief Nhlanhlayamangwe Ndiweni, however, said the current measures to deal with Gukurahundi will not achieve much without truth-telling.
“Truth telling is absolutely crucial, as you cannot go around it or avoid it,” he said. “It has to be a part and parcel of the whole thing.
“It is about having those difficult discussions of saying what happened to this body that is lying here.
“That family must be given the choice to say, ‘no we would rather engage in just forgiveness and leave it there’ or the family would say ‘we want this matter to go to a court of law’.”
Ndiweni said traditional leaders in the region had engaged the Matabeleland Collective to discuss the importance of truth telling in efforts to resolve the Gukurahundi question.
The Matabeleland Collective, a grouping of civil society organisations, met Mnangagwa in March to discuss ways of resolving Gukurahundi.
“For us truth-telling is absolutely essential,” the outspoken chief added. “You can’t escape it unless someone has a point of view that says genocide is ok for the Ndebele nation.
“Without truth telling, there won’t be justice but a façade of quick reburials and exhumations.”
Critics doubt Mnangagwa’s government is ready for truth-telling on Gukurahundi, as many of its top officials were directly involved in the massacres.
Mnangagwa himself was Mugabe’s intelligence chief during the killings while vice president Constantino Chiwenga and Agriculture minister Perrance Shiri oversaw the pogrom as army commanders.