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Bhalagwe: Camp of depravity

Amid all the horrors of Matabeleland one name stands out as being particularly synonymous with human depravity: Bhalagwe camp.

It was originally a base for ex-Zipra troops incorporated into the Zimbabwe National Army. But in 1982 the troops there were accused of being dissidents.

The camp was surrounded by paratroop and commando units and shut down. From mid-1982 it became the country’s most notorious detention centre.

The camp lies less than a kilometre from a main road, but was invisible to it. Nearby is the Antelope mine.

It was made up of 180 large, round asbestos “holding sheds” measuring about 12 metres by six metres and another 36 half that size. Roughly 136 detainees were kept in each of the larger sheds. They slept on the floor, squeezed together on their sides. There were no beds, blankets, or toilet facilities.

Children, as well as adults, were kept in Bhalagwe. The detainees were trucked in from all over Matabeleland South. Survivors’ accounts consistently refer to daily deaths at the camp. Villagers living near the Antelope mine report there were nightly visits by trucks, with workers tipping the corpses down a shaft, and explosions as hand-grenades were thrown after them.

Conditions at Bhalagwe were evoked by one 16-year-old survivor of the camp who was quoted by the commission: “At Bhalagwe the charge office was full of blood. We had to sit in lines outside the office waiting our turn to be beaten.

“When you were in front of the line you knew it was your turn next. The beatings started at 5.30am.

“I saw two people being shot and seven being beaten to death. Very many died, but I helped to bury only these nine I saw die. I dug their graves.”

The Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) teamed up with Five Brigade to conduct interrogations at Bhalagwe. According to the commission, they used electric shock treatment and water torture -which involved forcing the subject’s head under water, or forcing a shirt into the victim’s mouth and pouring water on to it until he, or she, lost consciousness.

“The perpetrator would then jump on the victim’s stomach until she, or he, vomited up the water. This practice commonly stopped once the victim was vomiting blood.”

The report says there was repeated reference by survivors of Bhalagwe to “a particularly cruel woman CIO officer who used to sexually torment her male victims”.

The practice of “forcing sharp sticks into women’s vaginas” was particularly common at Bhalagwe.

“Witnesses refer to women at Bhalagwe adopting a characteristic, painful, wide- legged gait after receiving such torture. In addition, men were also subjected to beatings which focused on their genitalia. The testicles would be bound in rubber strips and then beaten with a truncheon …

“At least one man is reported as dying after his scrotum was burst during a beating. Several witnesses also report being told to have sex with donkeys while at Bhalagwe and being beaten when they failed to do so … “

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