Blood on our hands: How Britain cynically covered up the truth about megalomaniac Mugabe
Last updated at 9:32 AM on 21st April 2009
The baby was already dead, but the crowd weren't to know that. They gasped in horror as the soldier held it aloft and declared: 'This is what will happen to your babies if you hide dissidents.'
Then he dropped the tiny corpse in the dust. That brutal
soldier was Brigadier Phiri, known as Black Jesus, notorious
head of the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade of the
Zimbabwe Army, whose mission was to 'cleanse' Matabeleland
There were no dangerous dissidents left, as his soldiers
well knew, since the civil war had ended some years before.
The myth provided them with an excuse to beat and torture
villagers for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of the
so-called insurgents, but in reality it was designed to
intimidate and subdue the Ndebele tribe for supporting
Joshua Nkomo, who had been Robert Mugabe's opponent at the
general election before independence in 1980, four years
In 1987, after up to 400,000 of his people had been
murdered in the pogrom that became known as the Gukurahundi
('the wind that blows away the chaff after harvest'), Nkomo
gave in and merged his party with Mugabe's Zanu-PF.
It is exactly 25 years ago that I stumbled on the first direct evidence that Mugabe was a monster who would destroy his own people to preserve his hold on power.
It seems extraordinary that it took nearly a quarter of a century for the world to catch on.
I had gone to Zimbabwe to interview him on the fourth
anniversary of independence.
The interview itself was disastrously dull. He was
implacable and uncommunicative.
When I asked him if he would seek a political solution in
Matabeleland, where a curfew had been in force for several
months, he repeated a well-rehearsed mantra: 'The political
solution was the general election. They should have accepted
defeat. The solution now is military.'
When I returned, disappointed, to my hotel in Harare, I
found some Africans waiting for me near the reception desk
- they knew I was in the country because I had appeared on
They were nervous, looking over their shoulders.
'Terrible things are happening in Matabeleland,' one of
them whispered. 'You must go to Bulawayo, to the Hilton
Hotel. We will contact you.'
Then they slipped away.
I flew to Bulawayo, hired a car and drove around the
apparently peaceful countryside.
Matabeleland is cattle country: cows stood on the dry river bed; old men scratched the earth with hoes; goats, donkeys, marmosets, even a kudu bull dashed across the road.
Hand of friendship: Margaret Thatcher with Robert Mugabe in 1982
Then I came to a series of roadblocks. I flannelled my
way past a couple of them, then reached a no-go area, where
my path was blocked by a truck-load of troops with
rocket-propelled grenades on their AK-47 rifles.
No journalists had been inside the curfew area since the
emergency had been imposed ten weeks before, though reports
had trickled out that Mugabe's Shona troops were taking
tribal revenge on the Ndebele.
Back at the hotel, I waited in my room until I heard a
light tap on the door and a piece of paper was pushed under
At midnight, I was to go down to the hotel car park,
where a van would flash its lights. I climbed into the van
and off we went on a nightmarish nocturnal journey I shall
Looking back, it amazes me that I wasn't more
apprehensive: my companions were all strangers and nobody
else knew where I had gone.
The plan was to drive me down back routes into the curfew
area to avoid the road-blocks.
This seemed to be going well until we were halted by a
It turned out that he just wanted a lift home, so he sat
in the front while I hid in the back.
Eventually we reached a crossroads, where we waited for
ages until a car arrived and I got in.
I was taken to a Catholic mission, where victims of
Mugabe's purge had found refuge.
I was shown raw wounds from bayonets and electric
torture, and women told me (interpreted by one of the
priests) how they had been beaten and their husbands
tortured and in some cases murdered; their bodies had been
thrown down mineshafts.
I was taken to the site of a mass grave, said to contain 16 bodies.
Brutalised: Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai
A man called Jason told me how he had hidden while the
soldiers collected men from the fields or their huts and
then marched them through villages until they were stopped
and forced to dig a large hole, where they were shot dead as
they stood in it.
I went on to another mission, where many more victims
described their experiences in graphic and sickening detail,
including a woman whose two small children had been shot
while running away.
Worse, much worse, was to happen in terms of rape,
torture and intimidation over the next two decades, but the
bulk of the killings were to happen in the next two years.
I flew back to Harare, where I told two people what I had
seen. One was a military attache at the British High
Commission, who said they had feared as much but had been
warned by the Foreign Office to stay out of it.
The other was an old Afrikaner, who said: 'Donald, you
have discovered an eternal truth about Africa. You stuff
them and then they stuff you. For decades the whites stuffed
the blacks and now it's their turn. The Ndebele stuffed the
Shona, now the Shona stuff them.'
I published the story in The Observer, of which I was
then the editor, and it attracted wide publicity - but not
for the right reasons. I had hoped to alert the world to
In the event, my scoop was sidetracked by a battle I then
had with the newspaper's chairman, Tiny Rowland, whose
company, Lonrho, had extensive business interests in
Zimbabwe and who had an uneasy personal relationship with
Mugabe because he had supported Nkomo.
I can see now that Rowland had to distance himself from
the story for commercial reasons, though his methods seemed
a bit extreme.
I awoke on the Sunday morning to hear the main headline on the BBC news: a statement from Mugabe saying he had received an apology from Rowland, who had decided to sack me for being 'an incompetent reporter'.
Then all hell broke loose, with newspapers and television
cameras camped outside my door, and the battle raged on for
weeks in a Fleet Street soap opera - 'the most
entertaining hullabaloo', as one paper put it, since Rupert
Murdoch fell out with Harry Evans, whom he sacked as editor
of The Times.
I survived, thanks to the support of The Observer's
independent directors and journalists (though the latter's
loyalty wobbled a bit when Rowland threatened to sell it to
After Lonrho started cutting off our money supply, I
offered my resignation to save further damage to the paper.
This was the signal Rowland needed to climb down and we
patched things up awkwardly over lunch in the incongruous
setting of a Park Lane casino he owned, served by
long-legged beauties in fishnet tights.
We concocted a ludicrous press release in which we said
we shared an affection for three things: we loved Africa, we
loved The Observer and we loved each other.
Looking back, I regret that my personal battle with
Rowland should have overshadowed such an important story.
I had been the first external witness of the Gukurahundi,
but Mugabe escaped the opprobrium he deserved.
It took another 18 years before Zimbabwe was expelled
from the Commonwealth.
Even now, Mugabe seems immune to outside pressure. At the
time, the Foreign Office played down my story as
The British High Commissioner admitted later that he had
been ordered 'to steer clear of it' and at all costs to
avoid offending Mugabe.
We should not be surprised, for British indifference to
the plight of the Africans in Southern Rhodesia and later
Zimbabwe goes back more than a century.
Cecil Rhodes's company stole land and cattle from them
without compensation - actions later sanctioned by the
In the Fifties, Britain set up the Central African
Federation - including Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and
Nyasaland (Malawi) - and allowed it to rule on a racist
agenda ('the partnership of rider and horse,' to quote its
Prime Minister, Sir Roy Welensky).
We did nothing to prevent Ian Smith declaring unilateral
independence in 1965, when we had the power to do so - I
was there at the time and wrote a report, which I later
heard had gone to a Cabinet committee chaired by the Foreign
Secretary, showing how we could end the rebellion.
My plan was rejected as too risky - the real reason, I
suspect, was that Harold Wilson feared he couldn't send
troops to Rhodesia without also helping the Americans in
Britain's paralysis ushered in 15 years of civil war that
wrecked the country and brought Mugabe to power.
By 1980, Britain was glad to be shot of the problem and
looked the other way while he nationalised the Press,
murdered his opponents and subverted the constitution.
We cannot dissociate ourselves from the resulting
disaster: a country with the world's biggest inflation rate
and fastest sinking economy, riddled with Aids and cholera,
where a quarter of the population have fled the country,
including 90 per cent of its graduates and most of its
doctors and nurses, where only one-in-ten has a job and 75
per cent go hungry in what was once the second richest
country in Africa.
Rebuilding Zimbabwe after Mugabe will be a monumental
task: restoring the rule of law, the economy, democratic
institutions, a free media, an independent judiciary and
protection for human rights.
Britain has such a huge historic responsibility for the country's plight that we ought to make it our duty to lead this reconstruction. On second thoughts, however, we have made such a shameful mess of its past that it might be better if we kept away.