My brush with Mugabe's death squads
Wednesday 22 April 2020
So there we were, in the middle of Zimbabwe's killing grounds, with Mugabe's murderous Fifth Brigade approaching over the hill.
President Robert Mugabe had put the word out that he "could not be responsible" for the safety of any journalists found in that part of Matabeleland where his North Korean-trained forces were running riot.
After finding physical evidence of the slaughter of civilians, we thought it prudent to get the hell out of there before the Fifth Brigade got any closer.
But our hired car wouldn't start. We started to walk, but, panting and sweating in the heat, we couldn't outpace the troops.
This was the plight of your Reuters reporter and a couple of newspaper colleagues 37 years and a month ago in the scorching veldt of Matabeleland, where Mugabe had vowed to end what he called a rebellion by the Ndebele supporters of his main political foe, Joshua Nkomo.
We were lucky. A lone white farmer appeared as if from nowhere in his pickup and politely asked if we would like a lift.
He not only rescued us - he pointed us to where there were more bodies, giving Reuters the evidence we needed to file a world scoop on the Matabeleland massacres.
The story had begun a couple of weeks before when I travelled to Bulawayo, the regional capital, to investigate reports of widespread atrocities by government forces.
Using mission sources in the region I had got to know during my time covering the bush war in the then Rhodesia, I found battered women in hospitals who reported beatings, rape and killings in the bush. They blamed government forces.
After filing their eyewitness accounts, I returned to the region to venture further into the bush. I travelled with newspaper colleagues, sharing my information for safety in numbers. For additional security we hid ID documents, notebooks and a camera under the flooring of the car.
It was not a good idea to be instantly identified as a journalist.
We left the car in the bush and walked - following an increasingly strong and sickening stench of burning bodies.
We soon came across the smouldering remains of a fire beneath an Acacia tree. Poking around the ashes with sticks we uncovered body parts - skulls and other human bones.
The farmer later took us to a glade about 1km away where we saw six decomposed corpses lying face down in the dirt "in an attitude that suggested they had been executed by gunfire," as I reported.
"The bodies, shrivelled into leather by days of sun ... lay face down, crammed side by side, their hands raised by their heads - one had laid a hand over his eyes - and each head had a large hole in it.”
Their belongings were strewn around, suggesting they had been young travellers hauled off a bus.
The detailed reporting was gruesomely necessary. Evidence of mass killings had to be carefully written - we had no photo service then.
The story swept front pages worldwide. It was the first independent confirmation of rumoured mass killings.
Mugabe's government denied everything of course, blaming the deaths on rebels. The official Zimbabwe news agency accused Reuters of making up the stories in the bar of the Bulawayo Holiday Inn.
But we stood by our reporting and human rights organisations and other reporters who came later confirmed our account.
Reuters was pilloried by the regime, and the then MD Glen Renfrew visited Zimbabwe to check things out. On arrival he asked me one question: "Do you stand by your story?”
"Yes," I said.
"That's good enough for me," the boss replied - and went into battle with the Information Ministry.
I would like to believe our reporting helped stop the slaughter, at least for a while.
I left Zimbabwe the following year for a new assignment in Washington. But there was a new wave of killings.
Later estimates put the Matabeleland death toll from Mugabe's reprisals at between 10,000 and 20,000 civilians - men, women and children. I had witnessed only the beginning. ■