x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

North Koreans not welcome in Bulawayo

Zimbabweans say their presence reminds them of Pyongyang's role in training local soldiers who later killed thousands of civilians in the 1980s.

North Korean footballers practise in France last October. The team has shifted its upcoming camp in Zimbabwe to the capital, Harare.
North Korean footballers practise in France last October. The team has shifted its upcoming camp in Zimbabwe to the capital, Harare.

BULAWAYO, ZIMBABAWE // North Korea's national football team has revised their plan to train in Bulawayo before the World Cup, apparently fearing protests by people who are unhappy about Pyongyang's role in training local soldiers who later massacred civilians in the 1980s. The team had sought to play friendly matches with local teams in Bulawayo and Harare during its May 23-31 visit, in preparation for the World Cup this summer in neighbouring South Africa.

But people in Bulawayo, the heart of the western Ndebele-speaking Matabeleland region where tens of thousands were massacred by North Korean-trained soldiers in 1982, said the North Koreans are unwelcome as their presence would be a reminder of the killings. Mqondisi Moyo, a spokesman for Ibhetshu Likazulu, a Bulawayo-based non-governmental group, is happy that their pressure has paid off. "We do not want to see them in Bulawayo," he said. "They can train in Harare or elsewhere as long as it is not in Matabeleland. But I think they realised that their visit was going to open old wounds and it was going to be a disaster for them."

In 1982, two years after he won the presidency in the country's first democratic election, Robert Mugabe accused members of the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (Zipra) of planning an insurgency against his government. To contain the apparent threat, he set up a military wing, the Fifth Brigade, which was trained by instructors from North Korea. He deployed the unit in central and western Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabwean soldiers went on a rape, torture and killing spree that left an estimated 20,000 civilians dead, according to a 1997 report by the Legal Resources Foundation and the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace titled "Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace: A report on the disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands 1980-1989". The government code-named its operation Gukurahundi, a Shona word for the often-violent rains that fall in August to wash away chaff from the previous year's farm harvest.

The military campaign ended in 1987 when Mr Mugabe signed a unity agreement with Joshua Nkomo, the Zipra commander. Walter Mzembi, the tourism minister who had invited North Korea, told the Associated Press late last month that the North Korean team had decided against staying in Bulawayo, but not for political reasons. He said North Korea wanted to practise on artificial surfaces, which are available only in Harare.

"This has nothing to with politics," Mr Mzembi told the news agency, "but is purely a sporting issue, for the North Korean team to have the adequate preparation for the tournament. "They [the rubber pitches] can only be found in Harare at Rufaro stadium, which was under renovation last year and so they [North Korea] have provisionally set to switch camp to Harare." The pitches at the World Cup stadiums in South Africa are all natural turf, however, making the rationale for the move to Harare sound like a way to save face.

Only North Korea, out of the 32 teams that will compete in the World Cup, have chosen to camp in Zimbabwe before the games start. The North Koreans play their first match on June 15, against Brazil in Johannesburg. In an e-mail copied to journalists before the about-turn, Nkululeko Sibanda, a Ndebele-speaking former student leader, said: "The relationship between Zimbabwe and North Korea was cemented by the blood of our kin. Symbolically, this is the best chance in more than 20 years we have had to defend our dead and our blood."

The Ndebeles have campaigned since 1987 for compensation for the victims, some of whom were maimed or killed and thrown into disused mine shafts and dams, according to the Catholic commission and legal foundation's report. Mr Mugabe has refused to apologise for the killings, save to say the massacres were "an act of madness that will never be allowed to happen again". Makhosi Khumalo, another Ndebele from Nkayi, in Matabeleland North province, said: "The people of Matabeleland are very bitter about silence on Gukurahundi. Short of an unequivocal apology from Mugabe himself as well as compensation to the victims, the wounds will never heal. "Yes, I am glad that those who lectured the Fifth Brigade how to commit crimes against humanity are no longer visiting any part of Matabeleland, but that is not enough until we as a country acknowledge our past mistakes and provide restitution to the victims of our madness." foreign.desk@thenational.ae