By Thabo Kunene
In 1983, Mathew Kazembe (not his real name) was part of Zimbabwe’s notorious Fifth Brigade army unit that massacred over 20 000 civilians – members of the country’s ethnic minorities living in the opposition strongholds of Matabeleland and parts of the Midlands provinces. A few weeks ago, Kazembe returned to ask for forgiveness.
During his unexpected visit to the villages of Lupane district in northern Matabeleland, Kazembe did not only apologise to survivors and families of those who perished at the hands of the Fifth Brigade. He also asked permission to adopt five children from one village and pay for their education until they finished high school.
According to community leaders who met the former soldier, Kazembe said that this would be part of his contribution to a community that was left with thousands of orphans after their parents were killed by the soldiers.
Kazembe’s unusual visit was coordinated by a prominent Roman Catholic priest who witnessed the massacres. In 1983, the Catholic churches accommodated thousands of villagers who had fled their homes to escape the army crackdown.
It was the priests who alerted the international community of the mass slaughter of civilians by the Fifth Brigade, a North Korean-trained army unit composed of recruits from President Robert Mugabe’s Shona tribe.
The meeting between the former Fifth Brigade man and the local community was held inside the area’s Catholic church.
“We decided to have the meeting in the church to avoid attracting attention from state security agents and sell-outs in the villages,” said a priest who did not want to be named.According to the same priest, the former soldier cried when villagers spoke about how they suffered at the hands of the brigade.
In turn, Kazembe told the villagers how he and other Fifth Brigade soldiers rounded up villagers, put them in a hut and set it on fire. Those who tried to escape were shot. Kazembe also admitted that he was one of the soldiers who buried local school teachers alive and threw others into disused mine shafts.
“I came here today as a born-again Christian. After I was converted to Christ, I could not live with my conscience. That’s why I am asking for your forgiveness for what me and other soldiers did to you,” said the emotional Kazembe to the shocked community leaders.
“Even if you don’t forgive me, I would understand. But I have asked God to forgive me for causing you pain and suffering.”
The massacres of villagers, who were mostly opposition ZAPU supporters, remains fresh in the minds of many in Matabeleland. The soldiers went on shooting rampages through villages. Thousands of people were abducted and never seen alive again. Pregnant women had their wombs ripped open by the young soldiers using bayonets.
After Kazembe had asked for forgiveness, one villager reportedly became emotional and left the meeting room. Those who remained, said the priest, shook hands with Kazembe and told him he was courageous for coming since he could have been attacked by relatives of the dead. In the late 1990s, a group of former Fifth Brigade soldiers tried to apologise to villagers in Plumtree but had to be quickly removed by security agents.
“It was a brave and risky decision for him to come here but I forgive him,” said one villager. “I lost my relatives and I know the teachers who were killed by his group.”
Another villager, Mangaliso Moyo, said he also decided to forgive the former Fifth Brigade man because he came and apologised for what happened.
“I feel I am a new man now,” said Kazembe on the phone a few days after his visit. “I feel free after meeting families of people we killed.”