During Zimbabwe’s struggle for Independence, the settler regime imprisoned countless people suspected to be aligned to liberation fighters. Prisons became slaughter houses for blacks.Between 1969 and 1979, Roman Catholic priest, Father Emmanuel Ribeiro, was Chaplain-General of Prisons, Army and Police. He witnessed first-hand Ian Smith’s killing machine. People were hanged, buried or burnt; most of them without even a pretence of going through the justice system. This week we publish the first part of a conversation between The Sunday Mail’s Deputy News Editor Levi Mukarati and Fr Ribeiro, in which the latter narrates the horrors he witnessed at Harare Central Prison.
Q: Can you tell us how you ended up chaplain during the Ian Smith era?
A: A little bit about myself: 1968, I was here at St Mary’s Old Highfield Roman Catholic Church in Highfield. The Archbishop of Salisbury, Francis Markall asked if I could volunteer to be chaplain of the prisons and I said I could do that.
That also entailed I would be chaplain of prisons, police and the army. The police, prisons and the army did not have African chaplains to be exact. Chaplains then were all white. So that was the beginning. It was myself, Edward Munyatwa, Reverend Isiah Mapondera and Madangure Moyo. We were brought in as officers.
By using the word “officer” it means we were of the rank of white people. Back then, the black wardens, it didn’t matter if he is sergeant or what, the white officer who was below his rank would not salute him.
We were officers with one bar at first but we went up very quickly and I ended up as Chaplain-General. So even whites below me would salute because I had become a very senior officer. That became my advantage. I could make certain decisions or influence how the prisoners were treated. It is unfortunate that three of my colleagues with whom I worked with are now late. This has motivated me to unearth some of the things that were happening in prison, particularly the executions between 1962 and 1979 during the Ian Smith era.
Executions had been taking place, but this period was marked by an increase in direct uprising of the blacks as they sought to fight colonial rule.
Q: How was the prison set up like then?
A: The prison had four distinct facilities. It had a detainees section that was separate for political detainees. These were people detained for their political influence.
We had the likes of Tekere, Muzenda, Mugabe, Enos Nkala and so forth, who were popular figures, detained there. These we dealt with them, we visited them and we catered for them. We catered for their education, we assisted these nationalists with books and at times facilitated communication with their families.
Then there was the white group of prisoners. They had their own area and (it was) a bit smart. They had their own kitchen, own staff. And I should say the Japanese were also placed in this group of whites. Again we would go and see them, pray with them.
Then there were the Chinese, Indians and Coloureds. Their facilities again were a bit modest, but not like the ones for the whites. The whites were a top class. We also dealt with this group. After all these groups came the mob, the general, black people.
In prison there are classes. You see a prisoner marked A or classified as A, these are those people jailed for small cases such as public fighting or something simple. You have the B class and these are small criminals, those again are small cases. You see A/Y, these are habitual criminal. These ones usually when released, you see them back in prison within a short space of time after having committed another crime.
Then there is the D class. These were locked up 24 hours. They would get just about one hour each day to go outside. So every week we would say, where do I go and draft our programme to say I am going here and there on such dates. But the D hole or the condemned or D section was a priority because this is where we felt there was need because the prisoners were always broken down.
You can imagine the support one needs especially if he or she knows she will die anytime. These do not do any work, they just wait for their time to die in a tiny cell with one or two blankets, a small bucket to excrete in and their clothes nicely folded outside the cell door.
Q: Since you mentioned the D class and that they were the ones targeted to die, may you shed light on these executions. Who was executed and for what reason?
A: A background or the start to this is that in 1964, Ian Smith decided on the notion of personal property.
This was after two young men, Albert Ncube and Issac Mpofu, who had been in prison from 1962 were executed on the 17th of July 1964. Both were executed on the same day and their bodies put in bags before being brought to Mbare. These bodies, as we speak, are buried at the Beatrice Cottages Cemetery. But the manner in which these bodies were delivered and people having learnt that they had been executed, caused an uproar from those who stayed in Mbare and Highfield.
These were the major townships then.
As a result of the uproar, the army was brought in by the white government to deal with these black people. About 10 people were shot dead. That is when the Smith regime declared that all executions to follow will be private and families of those executed would not be told or involved. Once one was sentenced to death, he or she became the state’s private property.
I want to underscore or underline the word “sentenced” because as you will later see, there were questions as to whether these people were sentenced or just brought in to be killed. So from that time up to 1979, all the executions then became private.
Q: It appears, from your narrative, the system was functional. Where then do we draw problems with these executions?
A: We cannot call them proper executions as portrayed by the system. In fact, they were slaughters, people opposed to the white rule were being brought in for killing. It was elimination.
The blacks, in the eyes of the whites Rhodesians, had to be wiped out.
Q: Can you please put weight to your claim, why do you describe them as such considering these people would have been tried and sentenced?
A: An important area that bothers me and that has led me to do further investigation is that during my days in service, I knew of certain people whose death sentence is said had been “commuted to natural life”.
These people were in prison but I did not see them going out, dead or just being released. What happened to them? I would like to deal with it later by itself.
But in general, we had about 50 people who are reported as having their death sentences “commuted to natural life”.
You see them coming into prison, but you do not see them going out, either walking or see bodies after being executed.
I would like to point out that three comrades – Victor Mlambo, James Dhlamini and Duly Shadreck – were executed inspite of a reprieve by the Queen. They were the second group to be executed under the Law and Order Maintenance Act. They were executed and buried in Salisbury Central Prison. The first Group was Albert Ncube and Issac Mangena in 1964, but they do not appear in Prisons records.
The other phase of execution of comrades was from 18 April 1975 to September 1977. Jailed liberation fighters were cremated in a chamber made in the prison workshop. The prisoners who made it did not even know what this chamber was going to be used for.
The last phase began from 1978 to the end 1979.
The furnace was designed to consume large numbers of bodies within minutes and nine comrades were used to test its efficiency. These comrades are not reflected in the prison records.
Towards the end of 1979, 30 comrades were executed and cremated on the same day. There is no record.
These young comrades were sent to the gallows for undergoing a course of guerrilla training, recruiting or encouraging other persons to go for military training, possession of weapons of war, arson, sabotage, bomb attack, laying land mines, and other acts of guerrilla warfare.
Others were killed for providing food, shelter, or other forms of assistance to guerrillas; failing to report the presence of guerrilla to the authorities with in specified time.
Many freedom fighters were summarily executed. They never reached the courts. Many more were mass torched to death.
Those who reached the courts were used as a gimmick, to try and show the country at large that everything was done above board.
The death sentence was used both as a deterrent and as punishment for those young people who gave up their lives to liberate their country.
Among these are two who are part of the seven heroes of Chinhoyi. These are Emmanuel Motsi who came together with Everisto Mururi.
But interestingly they were alleged to have killed Hendricks and Barbara Viljeon in Gadzema in Hartley.
These two I know they were executed because I was there, but they are under the group “commuted to natural life”. So what happened?
I was there and that is how the settler regime dealt with “problematic” persons – elimination. People were butchered, slaughtered just to get rid of them.
There is a child of 12 years, Eli Hagea Bonde Lameck Wandiyao, sentenced to death. A 17 year old Spidon Kufunduka Sam Konke, 18-year-olds Cuthbert Phiri, John Mutauro, Kanita Robert Tobias, Ignatious Mote, Razor Nyamarupa, William Chigombe, Sande Benson, Mosses Tom Jaure, Naison Dhliwayo, Reuben Donga. And 19-year-olds River Peter Chimunondo, Jaffrey Pondayi Munetsi, Rekisi Pikiti Ncube, Ponias Shava, Negtory Chikunguru, Stauros Tswayo, Tafirei Kanyama and others who were executed.
20-year-olds being executed?
These were murders going on under a system that does not prescribe a death sentence on anyone below 21 years.
You also ask yourself who was the judge that handed over the sentence? Again that information is vague.
You get cases that the sentence was handed down in Chivhu, but there was no judge there. Bindura, Chegutu, there were no judges there, but someone comes from there already sentenced to death.
What is happening? Is it a military court, junta or special court?
To be continued next week
Q: How did the situation end up being like that, what is the explanation?
A: The logic behind this is that the Smith regime had gone into desperation and would carry out all the unimaginary things.
They were killing people left right and centre, they were killing people in masses. Those that were brought to prison were to justify to the world that they have been to the courts.
The Smith regime’s goal was that of elimination of liberation fighters. Maybe one out of 30 or 40 is the one sent to prison but the 29 or 39 were disposed elsewhere; either being burnt, thrown into pits or mine shafts.
So the prison executions were just to try and give legitimacy that the processes to deal with the so-called trouble causers were being done, that there was no human rights violation.
But in fact, mass killings were going on.
At Goromonzi it was a killing machine; at Bindura it was a killing machine; at Harare Central Prison it was a killing machine.
To show that some people were just hounded, I had a case of one young man again who was sentenced to hanging, but I managed to assist him get released.
His name was Everisto and I forget his surname.
When he was released he straight away lost his mind. I made sure he was accommodated in the prison for sometime as no one knew where he had come from. There were no records of his place origin.
After a while he began to get back to his senses. I constantly asked him where he came from. One day he gave mention of a place in Mabvuku.
I took a test and drove him to the area and fortunately when I got to a family I knew, Everisto quickly knew one of the boys there.
From there we went to his home. I parked at a distance, trying to see if the young man knew where he was.
When his mother saw him, she collapsed because she didn’t know where her son had been all along.
So you had people going missing and being executed and up to now that is why we have cases of relatives who say we last saw so-and-so in the 1970s and there has never been a trace of him or her.
Q: These executions, or killings, how were the actually done? What was the process?
A: The decisions to execute the prisoners came from the Ministry of Justice. As the chaplain we always knew that any day we would have these deaths.
The executions took place at least twice a week. At times up to four people were killed in one week. But the prison authorities only knew when they got a letter from the Ministry of Justice that one or two are going to be executed.
It was the Secretary for Justice who came.
The chaplain would be told that so and so will be executed. He would go and pray with the victims, after which the authorities lead them to the execution chamber.
The top hierarchy of the prisons including the Commissioner of Prisons would be present. The secretary came with his team and he would sign papers that the person is dead. The prison authorities would just witness.
The doctor was brought in, but it was the secretary who had the overall say.
Again, the person would hang there for 20 to 30 minutes because it takes time for one to die with a noose. It was like lynching by the Americans, it is exactly the same. It was meant to cause pain.
Q: Who conducted the hangings?
A: They hired an executioner. That is why for a long time even after Independence no one wants to do it.
Back then, they would advertise the job and people would come to do the job. There were about three or four white executioners.
I remember one came and did it once and said “I can’t continue” because he had hanged about four prisoners in one session.
According to law, once the hanging processes fails a person is freed, but during my time it was 100 percent.
Like I said, they would leave the victim to hang for 20 to 30 minutes so definitely the prisoners would die.
I would be there as the father of these prisoners, and it is difficult to say how I feel.
And maybe the explanation that I would give is that if you are a father or mother and you are standing before your child being executed and you cannot do anything, how will that go down with you?
That is the explanation to the widely asked dumb question of how I felt.
And this is not just one case, but for more than 10 years, that was my life.
For us, these were our children. You see, the prisoners were not executed through shooting or the injection, which is faster, but they used the noose.
When you had four, five people who were being hanged, you take them and bury them or see them being burnt. For one to ask how you felt really is insensitive.
Or you see your mother being burnt, and one asks how did you feel? There are certain things that are self-explanatory.
That is why you find soldiers being desensitised because most of them kill people and sometimes they have to carry their dead colleagues.
So when they return, you need to do a lot of work on them, some of them end up killing their wives, some end up committing suicide and some end up vagabonds.
When you live in that situation of tragedy after tragedy, you try as much as you can to contain yourself, but you cannot.
You cannot run away because if you run away what have you achieved?
You are the only person they are relying on for protection. You are the only person they can talk to and if you give up, if you run away, then what.
Those are some of the tragedies that when a person lives in glass house cannot understand. When you are deep in that tragedy, you become part of it.
I talked and lived with these people and became a family, but all of a sudden one is gone. These are the tragedies that I fail to put words to.
That is why sometimes you put those feelings into a song because spoken words cannot carry them.
It doesn’t matter how you paint it, you cannot carry it, you cannot, you cannot carry that brute you witness against your own.
Q: And what happened to the bodies?
A: The cemetery that they claim has the remains of the prisoners at Chikurubi Maximum Prison actually is a decoy. It has nothing. It is fake. The prisoners are buried in the farm.
As one gets into the prison farm and after crossing a river, there is a maize field on the right. The prisoners are buried in the maize field.
Then there is the crematorium which was built in 1977 and started operating in 1978. Because of the sheer number of prisoners that were being executed around 1975 and 1976 as the war thickened, it was seen necessary to build a new crematorium.
So the prisoners began constructing the new one which started being used in 1978.
I say since 1976 the crematorium became useful because this was the height of the liberation struggle and people were being executed in high numbers.
There was need to burn the bodies. Some were just coming for the cremations from places unknown. So, after 1976 people were being burnt after executions.
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