Chenjerai “Hitler” Hunzvi (23 October 1949 – 4 June 2001) served as Chairman of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association beginning in 1997.
Hunzvi was born in Chiminya, Southern Rhodesia on 23 October 1949. He said that he joined the struggle against white minority rule in Rhodesia at the age of 16 taking the nom-de-guerre of “Hitler”. He reported to have been interned in Gonakudzingwa and Wha Wha prisons between 1967 and 1970, and to have been a prominent leader in Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), though these claims have been denied by some other elders of the campaigns. He left the country and having been identified as being bright, was sent to study in Romania, becoming fluent in Romanian and French, and subsequently began medical studies in Poland where he married a Polish woman with whom he had two children. He represented ZAPU while in Poland, and in 1979, during his medical studies, Hunzvi visited London to attend the ceasefire and constitutional negotiations for the Lancaster House Agreement.
Hunzvi returned to Zimbabwe in 1990, working initially at Harare Central Hospital, and later founding a medical practice in Budiriro, in the township of Harare. His wife fled Zimbabwe in 1992 to escape violence from her husband. She described Hunzvi as a “cruel and vile man who took delight in beating me. And as for the war, he never fired a shot. He saw no action at all.” He subsequently remarried and has two other children.
Hunzvi was subsequently elected chairman of the Zimbabwean Liberation War Veterans Association in 1997, which was, at the time, a relatively inactive organisation. A born orator, Hunzvi organised rowdy demonstrations demanding gratuities and pensions from President Robert Mugabe, and critiqued the president. The pressure tactics were successful and the 50,000 war veterans were granted one-off payments of US $2,500, as well as monthly pensions of US $100. A compensation fund was also set up to benefit those who were disabled following war service, with the amount paid determined by the degree of disability. The fund was the subject of enormous fraud, with government officials, party officials and others (including Hunzvi) determined to be 117% disabled. Experts have claimed that the settlements were a major factor in the economic crisis in the Zimbabwe.
In 1999, Hunzvi was arrested in corruption case regarding the allegedly embezzlement of Z$45m of the war veterans’ funds. He was denied bail, due to fear that he would intimidate witnesses or abscond. The actual trial was repeatedly postponed, and the war veterans’ leadership voted to remove him from office. In 2000 Hunzvi led the campaign involving war veterans and other supporters of ZANU-PF in the seizure of white-owned land. During parliamentary elections in 1990, he incited followers to intimidate and harass members of the opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change. Calling himself “the biggest terrorist in Zimbabwe” he was identified by numerous witnesses as participation in beatings and torture, and his medical clinic labelled a “torture chamber” by Amnesty International in 2000.
Hunzvi was elected to parliament in 2000, but died in 2001 in Harare’s Parirenyatwa Hospital. His death was variably ascribed to malaria, a heart condition, or AIDS.
Hunzvi first came to prominence when he was arrested at the age of 16 for supporting the nationalist struggle. On release, he escaped the country to join the liberation forces. He was judged to be bright, and was sent to study in eastern Europe – to Romania, where he became fluent in French and Romanian, and then to Poland.
In 1979, he attended the Lancaster House talks in London, where a ceasefire and constitution for Zimbabwe were negotiated. He then returned to Poland to continue his studies, and eventually qualified as a doctor; his second wife, with whom he had a son, was Polish.
Two other marriages brought him four children. He returned home in 1990, and opened a medical practice in the Harare township of Budiriro.
By 1995, Hunzvi was issuing declarations of disability, with which thousands of war veterans – including cabinet ministers and other high-ranking officials – claimed large payments from the government.
On the strength of that scheme, he was elected chairman of the Zimbabwe Liberation War Veterans Association. He cannily converted the relatively inactive organisation into a political force to be reckoned with.
Led by Hunzvi, the veterans demanded gratuities and pensions from President Robert Mugabe. They staged angry demonstrations, which pointedly criticised Mugabe until he agreed, in November 1997, to pay them Z$5bn.
The money, which had not been included in the national budget, prompted a dramatic crash in the value of the Zimbabwe dollar, and the nation’s economy has been in a downward spiral ever since.
In 1999, Hunzvi appeared in court for allegedly embez zling Z$45m of the war veterans’ funds, but the trial was repeatedly postponed: last year, the veterans association called him a “shepherd turned wolf”. He also faced charges for fraudulently signing hundreds of the disability forms, including his own.
Hunzvi gained greater prominence in March last year, when he led his veterans, and other supporters of Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party, in a series of invasions of white-owned farms.
He gloried in the violence inflicted: “I am the biggest terrorist in Zimbabwe,” he said repeatedly. During the campaign for the parliamentary elections last June, he travelled the country, inciting his followers to intimidate supporters of the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Numerous witnesses identified Hunzvi as a member of the gangs who severely beat and tortured them. According to numerous reports, which have never been denied, scores of people were tortured in his Budiriro medical offices. Although Hunzvi was known for his diatribes against whites, the vast majority of his victims were black.
In a campaign marked by violence, Hunzvi won election to parliament, but became infuriated when he was not awarded a cabinet post. He remained Mugabe’s most potent weapon, however, and intensified his intimidation tactics in two subsequent byelections.
Four opposition members of parliament have charged that Hunzvi threw a petrol bomb at them and ordered 60 men to beat them.
Earlier this year, he commanded raids by militants on nearly 200 factories and businesses, in the name of mediating in labour disputes. Business managers were assaulted by militants who extorted money they claimed was compensation for unfair dismissal.
Two weeks ago, Hunzvi was named by international human rights groups as a torturer who had inflicted “mass psychological torture” on thousands of Zimbabweans. By this time, Mugabe had issued a blanket amnesty for politically motivated crimes that allowed Hunzvi and his veterans to act with impunity.
Hunzvi’s collapse in Bulawayo on May 21 was attributed to suspected malaria; although no official cause of death was announced by the state news media, medical sources say that he died of Aids. Despite the fact that Zimbabwe’s HIV/Aids infection rate is estimated at 35% of the 15-to-49 age group, denial of the disease is still strong. Few of the 100,000 Zimbabweans who will die of Aids this year will admit it.
Chenjerai ‘Hitler’ Hunzvi, politician, born October 23 1949; died June 4 2001