Zimbabwean soldiers have killed hundreds of civilians in the past month in an offensive against dissidents in the southwestern part of the country, according to church and nongovernment relief officials.
The North Korean-trained 5 Brigade, as it sweeps through rural districts, has created a climate of fear worse than what the people experienced during the country's bloody war for independence, veterans say.
At least five independent reports by church groups and relief workers have been sent to the government detailing killings, rapes and beatings by the 5,000-man brigade, composed mainly of troops from Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's former guerrilla army.
Although compiled separately, the reports cite reliable estimates totaling more than 1,000 civilians killed in Matabeleland Province, the stronghold of opposition leader Joshua Nkomo's minority Ndebele tribe.
In Harare, Mugabe accused Nkomo of seeking South African help to overthrow the government, the official news agency, ZIANA reported.
Mugabe told a rally last week that "5 Brigade would not leave Matabeleland until every dissident has been routed," The Herald newspaper said. The dissidents reportedly have killed at least 120 civilians and they kidnaped six foreign tourists, including two Americans, last July. The fate of those abducted is still unknown.
The government blames most of the killings in Matabeleland on dissidents who it says are trying to overthrow Mugabe and install Nkomo. Nkomo denies any link with the rebels.
Although the government says it is only seeking to wipe out dissidents, Nkomo party officials maintain that the government is trying to crush the party as part of Mugabe's plans for a one-party state.
Government spokesman Justin Nyoka said today after a trip with Zimbabwean reporters south of Bulawayo that many of the incidents were carried out by dissidents in stolen Army uniforms to foment rebellion. Nyoka "indefinitely postponed" a promised trip for foreign correspondents to the affected areas, which are all north of Bulawayo. He accused the foreign press of distorting events in Zimbabwe.
Other military units and police have been excluded from the area during the 5 Brigade operations, more than 100 miles away from the area toured by the Zimbabwean press today.
The government has clamped a dusk-to-dawn curfew on most of the area between Bulawayo and Victoria Falls. Only government and military vehicles are allowed to enter in daytime in a 13,000 square mile area, larger than the state of Maryland.
Victims and witnesses of incidents often said they can identify 5 Brigade troops because of their red berets and the fact that few speak Ndebele.
A veteran doctor who worked at a mission throughout the Rhodesian war said fear is far more pervasive now. Talking to reporters after interviews with hospitalized women who said they had been beaten, bayoneted or burned by soldiers, the doctor pleaded: "Please, you must not name the people, say where they live or mention this facility. The soldiers are dangerous. They will come and destroy the hospital."
There were probably informants in the hospital because the next day, without any stories being published, police questioned the doctors for two hours about the reporters' visit.
One of the most brutal incidents was described by a 13-year-old girl hospitalized with extensive burns and three bullet wounds.
Most of her family had been wiped out, she said, by four 5 Brigade soldiers who were part of six truckloads of troops that came to her village near Lupane Feb. 13.
"The soldiers asked us where the dissidents were. We said we did not know. They had no patience to ask in a polite way," she said through a translator picked at random. "They shouted, 'Tell us, or we will kill you.' "
"One soldier said, 'Line up and I'll shoot you.' Another said, 'No, get them in the hut and we will burn all of them,' " she said.
"The soldiers forced us all into two huts, started shooting at the huts and then set them on fire. One of us tried to come out of the burning hut and was shot." She thought more than 100 bullets were fired.
She survived, the girl said, by rolling out of the hut and playing dead after being shot.
"After about 10 minutes the voices went away," and she got up and walked for a full day to a mission hospital. She was the only one of the six in the hut to survive. Her mother, her father, two aunts and a sister-in-law were all killed, she said. During her walk to the hospital she heard that her three younger sisters were beaten and suffered bullet wounds.
Now the girl is afraid that none of her remaining relatives knows she is still alive. Her left arm is burned from shoulder to wrist, there are extensive burns on her right arm, back and left leg, and she has bullet wounds in each arm and just below the neck.
In the past few days there has been a decline in the number of reports of atrocities reaching Bulawayo. That may be an indication that 5 Brigade, whose troops are the only government forces equipped with Soviet-designed AK47 rifles, is wrapping up its anti-dissident campaign. Or it may simply mean that the sweeps have moved into more remote areas further to the north where it takes longer for reports to filter out.
The Rev. Robert Mercer, the Anglican bishop of Matabeleland has called for an independent inquiry by Amnesty International or the International Red Cross.
One church official spoke of fears of genocide if the violence continues.
No matter where the government places the blame, the atrocities of the last month seem bound to leave permanent scars in the century-old tribal feud between Mugabe's Shona majority and the Ndebeles.
"The whole basis of national understanding had been destroyed," a Ndebele relief official said. "It makes no sense now to speak of reconciliation anymore between black and black." He was referring to Mugabe's policy of reconciliation when the prime minister's election three years ago transformed the former white-ruled colony of Rhodesia into the black-run nation of Zimbabwe.
There are already some signs of a backlash. Four ambushes, including two against police vehicles, have occurred along the Victoria Falls Highway in the last two weeks, despite the heavy military presence
After a month of batterings, there is no question that many people are afraid. Invariably they will speak to reporters only when guaranteed anonymity.
At a provincial hospital, a woman held her 2-year-old grandson, whose eyes widened in fear as reporters approached. The baby had bullet wounds in his right shoulder and leg and in his left heel.
The grandmother, who had fled into a forest when the troops arrived Feb. 12, said she had heard from friends that the boy's mother and two sisters and two other small children were killed by the soldiers.
Another woman showed reporters her 5-month-old granddaughter, who had five stitches between the eyes from a bayonet wound.
A teacher painfully walked down the hall half bent over. She had raw wounds from a whipping on her buttocks, arms and legs that were so severe that she could not sit or stand straight.
She said the soldiers came to her village Feb. 9 and beat her until she lied and said she was married to a dissident. Other patients had broken arms, had been burned on the face with flaming cloths or had been cut in the vaginal area.
All said the soldiers asked them the whereabouts of dissidents and then beat them when they said they didn't know. They were accused of supporting or being married to dissidents.
It was impossible to interview patients with gunshot wounds because troops were nearby, but a doctor said 34 such cases had been admitted the second week of February alone.
Numerous other eyewitness reports are available, often from members of Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union Party. Nkomo arranged a meeting for reporters in a Bulawayo suburb in which eight people gave details about the killings of 72 persons.
A homeless 19-year-old girl staying at the Mzilikazi Methodist Church told how six men were forced to dig a deep hole and then were gunned down inside it while their horrified friends and relatives watched. Old people were then forced to bury them and children were ordered to dance on the graves.
The current antidissident operation is being staged in a vast, sparsely populated region stretching north along the main highway from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls. Because of the remote nature of the area and the transportation cutoff, the exact numbers killed probably never will be known. One provincial doctor simply said, "We are bathed in blood."
Another medical official added that no soldiers had been treated at the provincial hospital.
"How can they be hurt? The people have no weapons. There is never an exchange of fire. The soldiers only go after the women and children."
Spokesman Nyoka told a group of reporters that 5 Brigade troops had expressed unhappiness about encountering foreign correspondents. The spokesman said he told the soldiers that the government, "will not be held responsible for what happens to journalists" if they venture into the countryside.