Armed troops spread fear in Bulawayo

The Guardian, March 8 1983

Four black townships in Bulawayo, the provincial capital of Matabeleland, were sealed off by government troops yesterday as the purge of Opposition supporters continued with detentions, beatings and house-to-house searches.

Six foreign journalists were held for six hours in the sweep through one township: a three-man crew from ITN and three others from the German television company, ARD. Others were threatened and told to leave the area.

With at least three people killed, six others shot and badly injured, and hundreds detained, fear is everywhere. Not even the taxi drivers will talk. Missionaries, aid workers and hospital staff shake their heads and say they dare not discuss what they know with journalists.

Phone calls are an exchange of innuendos against a background of clicking and whirring. There is endless speculation about who is an informer, who works for the Central Intelligence Organisation, who can be trusted with a minor indiscretion.

Reports of widespread killings and mutilations continue to come in from outlying areas, where the Fifth Brigade has been blamed for up to 1,500 deaths since January 21. The government denies the reports or blames the incidents on dissidents.

The Anglican Bishop of Matabeleland is one of the few who has spoken out. Bishop Robert Mercer said yesterday that he had written to the Prime Minister, Mr Mugabe, asking for an independent inquiry into the Fifth Brigade’s activities.

He said: “I decided to do this after standing by the grave of a lay preacher last week. He had allegedly been shot by the Fifth Brigade after conducting the funeral service of a neighbour who had also allegedly been shot by them.”

Village women who work in the town claim they have been raped. An ex-government employee spoke of men being blinded with bayonets and others being forced to dig their own graves before execution.

On the first working day since troops moved into the townships – black suburbs – on Friday night, people were filtered through a maze of roadblocks as they went to work in the city centre yesterday morning.

Armed troops stopped buses, cars, bicycles and pedestrians, demanding identification papers, details of movements and proof of employment. Those who could not give satisfactory answers were detained.

The operation was centred on the Luveve Road, which runs like a spine from the northern township of Luveve past Njube, Entumbane and Palindaba townships. All four were occupied by troops throughout the day.

The sweep through Luveve began at noon. About 1,000 armed men assembled, standing two deep in a cordon which stretched for half a mile through the bush at the edge of the dusty township.

Earlier, people had been told from a loudspeaker in a light plane flying overhead to stay home all day. At noon the troops were ordered in, filing through the deserted streets.

Carrying their automatic rifles across their chests, they walked slowly from the bush into the township, a thick ribbon of grey police uniforms and camouflage, dotted with the red berets of the Fifth Brigade.

As they reached the lines of houses they broke into smaller groups and began an operation which has now become routine In townships which were designed in grid pattern by the old white regime to assist security checks. The troops moved from door to door, checking identities, searching houses and ordering owners to dig up gardens in search of weapons. There were persistent reports of beatings.

One woman from Luveve told me that she had seen a group of about 100 youths being herded into the bush at gunpoint on the outskirts. Hundreds more have been taken to detention camp for ‘screening’.

At dusk, the Fifth Brigade pulled out, leaving armed patrols behind them. Eight of the 14 townships have now been purged.