War clouds gather

Published May 1, 1998

Zimbabwe’s Roman Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace predicts that Zimbabwe will face civil unrest if President Robert Mugabe’s government refuses to apologize publicly for atrocities and human rights abuses committed in the 1980s.

Thousands of Matabele were killed or tortured by government forces in the early years of the decade. They make up 16 per cent of Zimbabwe’s 11 million people, while the dominant Shona tribal group comprise 71 per cent.

“We are definitely sitting on a time bomb. It’s not long before the bomb explodes,” says commission director Mike Auret, “There will never be peace in this country as long as the government refuses to apologize for the atrocities.”

Bishop Robert Mercer, of the Anglican Catholic church in Ottawa, says he is not surprised that the issue of post-independence atrocities still dogs the Mugabe government.

Bishop Mercer, who was Anglican bishop in Zimbabwe at that time, witnessed first hand the devastating toll government forces exacted from the defiant Matabele. “Mr. Mugabe had provocation,” he says. “He made a peace offer, which included all tribes. But the Matabeles wouldn’t accept it. Matabele dissidents continued to fight on and killed many, including Catholic missionaries.”

The response of the government was to send in Korean trained army brigades to quell the dissidents. “They slaughtered the Matabeles indiscriminately,” Bishop Mercer says.

He recalls visiting an Anglican missionary station and finding heaps of bodies in shallow graves. People had been shot at close range, with AK47 rifles.

Reports of the slaughter embarrassed Mr. Mugabe and he turned on the churches, Bishop Mercer said.

Christians were treated as though they were Matabele dissidents when they complained of atrocities. “And to this day Mr. Mugabe has not officially apologized ,” says Bishop Mercer, who has kept in touch with the Zimbabwe scene from a distance.

The recent situation in Zimbabwe is more volatile, Bishop Mercer says, which makes an apology more likely. Mr. Mugabe’s unpopularity could lead to a change of heart. In fact, during a recent meeting with Roman Catholic bishops, the president stopped just short.

Bishop Mercer says that even churches that supported Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle have turned against Mr. Mugabe. They know the president had three different secret police forces. They know about the torture chambers.

The Roman Catholic commission published a 260-page report last year called Breaking the Silence, detailing killings and torture. It is estimated that 3,750 people were killed and another 7,000 tortured. More than 10,000 others were detained and 700 homes destroyed as Mr. Mugabe’s government crushed dissent. Bob Bettson is a Toronto freelance writer. With files from ENI.


  • Bob Bettson

    Bob Bettson is a Toronto freelance writer.

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