Meeting the army commander

This is an edited extract from the forthcoming book Through the Darkness: A Life in Zimbabwe, by Judith Garfield Todd.

The Bulawayo Chronicle reported on Saturday February 12 1983 that Sydney Sekeremayi, Minister of State (Defence) in the Prime Minister’s Office, had said that 5 Brigade was going to operate in Matabeleland for a long time. The headline was “Five Brigade here to stay”.

Not all readers could have comprehended the report, but rumours had been mounting about the commission of terrible deeds by armed forces in different parts of the country, particularly Matabeleland — rumours like ghastly nightmares from which you struggle, but don’t quite manage to awake.

Then Henry Karlen, the Catholic Bishop of Matabeleland, telephoned my father to inform him that the state was perpetrating atrocities. People were being terrorised, starved and butchered and their property destroyed.

Bishop Karlen said he had tried without success to make an appointment with the prime minister to tell him what was happening and to get him to stop.

The Catholics had been assembling evidence from their network of churches, schools and hospitals throughout the rural areas. The bishop asked if he could send a copy of these documents to my father and whether, as a senator appointed by Mugabe, he could seek an appointment for Karlen and others with the prime minister.

My father said he would do whatever he could. Karlen would courier the material to me and I would hold it for my father, who was due in Harare shortly.

The documents were delivered to my office on Thursday 17 February. I rang my father to report their arrival and he gave me permission to look at them, which I immediately did. Then I wished I hadn’t.

Events chronicled were far, far worse than I could ever have imagined. It seemed that state armed forces — whether only 5 Brigade or others too — had gone berserk in an orgy of violence against defenceless civilians.

I felt so horrified, sick and faint that I longed to go straight home to bed. But I had an appointment early that evening with a representative of an overseas agency which could benefit the Zimbabwe Project.

I couldn’t cancel.

We met at the Quill Club, a haunt of journalists and others who relished informed gossip, in the Ambassador Hotel near parliament. We had an adequate, if short, conversation and then I excused myself.

As I was leaving, someone hailed me. I turned and there was Justin Nyoka, now government’s director of information, waving at me and calling “Judy! Come and say hello!” He was with two other men, one of whom I didn’t know. When I joined them, he was introduced to me as Brigadier Agrippah Mutambara, head of the Zimbabwe National Army Staff College. The other was Lieutenant General Rex Nhongo, the army commander.

I shook hands with them, sat down and we exchanged courtesies. Justin bought me what was gladly described as a bitterly cold Castle Lager.

Bishop Karlen’s documents started burning in my handbag. I knew I would never have an opportunity like this again and steeled myself to speak to Nhongo.

I suppose Bishop Karlen had thought that perhaps Mugabe did not know what was happening. I suppose I thought that maybe Nhongo didn’t know either.

I said how wonderful it was that we were having this chance meeting, as I had information about army activities in Matabeleland that he might be unaware of.

The noise around us was increasing as more people came into the club and I could tell he was straining to hear me. I persevered and said it appeared as though forces were out of control; that atrocities were being committed and that mass graves were being filled with the corpses of helpless citizens.

Then, with terror, I fell silent. I had been noticing huge trickles of sweat pouring down Justin’s temples. He was mopping his face and saying, “Judy, keep quiet! Judy, keep quiet!” but Brigadier Mutambara intervened and said, “No, let her speak. She may know things we don’t. Let us hear what she has to say.”

Nhongo was stuttering, whether with horror or anger I couldn’t tell. I learned later that the stutter was a normal part of his speech. People passing our table kept trying to greet him, and he waved them all away.

He asked me for specific localities. I said I would find out for him. He said he was going to Matabeleland by helicopter the next day. He would send a car for me and I could go with him and show him the mass graves. I said unfortunately I couldn’t, as I had only heard about them and not seen them myself.

But, I said, thinking of Bishop Karlen, I might be able to find someone else to accompany him. Certainly I would try to compile information for him about what appeared to be happening. I gave him my telephone number and said if he really wanted someone to guide him, he should let me know as soon as possible and I would try to help. Then I said goodnight and slipped away.

Early the next morning, I telephoned Bishop Karlen and told him of my meeting with the army commander. I asked permission to copy all his documents for Nhongo.

He was quiet and obviously troubled but eventually said yes as others, including my father, of course, had, or were about to receive copies.

At about 9.30 I received a call from our reception area a floor below to say someone from the army was waiting for me in a car downstairs.

I scribbled a note to Sister Janice McLaughlin, saying something like: The Army Commander, Lt Gen Nhongo, has sent a car for me. I put it in a sealed envelope and gave it to Morris Mtsambiwa in an adjacent office, calmly saying, without explanation, that I was going somewhere and he must deliver the note if I wasn’t back before our offices closed that afternoon.

On the street I found a very smart looking Brigadier Mutambara in khaki uniform waiting for me. He opened the passenger door at the front of the olive green army car, I climbed in and we drove away — to where or what my mind refused to consider.

I greeted him and started talking, trying to act as though everything was normal. I said I had just been on the telephone to Bishop Karlen and had told him of my meeting with Nhongo and himself the previous evening.

I said Bishop Karlen was the one who had compiled the information I had talked about and that he had given me permission to copy all the documents for the army commander. Mutambara seemed preoccupied. He was driving in the direction of Chikurubi Prison and started talking about himself and the fact that he was divorcing his wife, who had been unfaithful to him, and preparing to marry someone else. He stopped at a bottle store, went in and bought a couple of bottles of beer and orange juice and then proceeded to a house which, I think, was in the Chikurubi complex.

A servant let us in, not looking at us. The brigadier led me into a bedroom, opened a bottle of beer for each of us, unstrapped his firearm in its holster, laid it on the bedside table next to my head and proceeded. I did not resist.

Before long the subjugation was over, he dropped me back at our offices and, in the words of Eddison Zvobgo, I tried to continue on my road precisely as if nothing had ever happened.

Should you fall, rise with grace, and without/ Turning to see who sees, continue on your road/

Precisely as if nothing had ever happened;/ For those who did not, the ditches became graves.

I collected the unopened letter I had left with Morris and destroyed it. Then I made copies of Bishop Karlen’s documents and drafted a covering letter to accompany them to Lieutenant General Nhongo and now, also, to Brigadier Mutambara.

After the weekend I contacted Mutambara, who had given me a card with his number. We met at the reception desk of the Ambassador Hotel.

I handed over an envelope for Nhongo and one for Mutambara himself, each containing a complete set of Bishop Karlen’s horrifying documents on death and destruction, my letter to Nhongo and a copy of it for the brigadier.

Dated Monday 21 February, it read:

“Lieutenant General Nhongo

Army Commander


Dear General

It was a privilege to talk to you and your friends at the Quill Club last Thursday evening, and to hear your views. My own strong feelings were based in part on evidence which I was not then authorised to pass on to you.

I now enclose a copy of a letter and reports compiled for the Prime Minister. I believe that Cdes Sekeremayi, Muzenda, Mnangagwa and perhaps others have also been given these copies. Bishop Karlen has given me permission now to give them to you. You can see for yourself the terrible suffering which they portray, if even half of these limited reports are accurate.

It seems to me that if, in the hunt for dissidents, we inflict such enormous damage on people who are Zimbabweans, and who are poor, weak, hungry and defenceless, all we will achieve is the creation of more dissidents forever.

I believe that this policy can only harm Zimbabwe. I also believe that, when Zimbabweans throughout the country learn what is happening, they will lose confidence in our government and in our national army.

When I hear of such damage to our people, I find it very difficult to sleep at night or to work during the day.

But while I am not in the position to provide these tormented peasants with food, with comfort and with safety, at least I can pass on to you what news I have of them.

I am sure that you are able to help [to] provide food and protection, and that the army can be redirected to healing and construction.

One of the things that frightens me most is to be told of the “disappearance” of so many young men from the affected areas — people who have never been proved to be dissidents, but who probably played a brave role in the struggle for Zimbabwe — their Zimbabwe as well as ours.

Surely the way to “deal” with dissidents is to establish first why they are dissidents, then to think of remedies? In other words, surely a political solution — perhaps then backed up by the military — is required, rather than an intransigent military one which, in my humble opinion, cannot be a solution but which can breed only more violence, bitterness and grief.

Thank you for your attention.

Yours sincerely,

Judith Acton”

There was no further reaction from either Nhongo or Mutambara. I had unburdened myself on the very Friday I was collected to Professor Noel Galen, a retired American psychiatrist and dear friend teaching psychiatry at the University of Zimbabwe’s medical school, but to absolutely no one else.

Judith Todd is the daughter of Sir Garfield Todd, erstwhile prime minister of colonial Southern Rhodesia. She spent eight years in exile in Britain as an opponent of white minority rule in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia. She returned to Zimbabwe shortly before independence in 1980 and soon realised that, far from being the solution to Zimbabwe’s ills, Robert Mugabe and his ruling Zanu-PF party were increasingly becoming the problem. As the country slid into economic and social decline, Todd had a front-row view from her position as director of an international aid agency. Over the first 25 years of Mugabe’s rule, she kept journals, notes and copies of letters and documents from which she has compiled an intensely personal account of life in Zimbabwe

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