This week, Father Emmanuel Ribeiro continues with his account of the horros he saw in the Rhodesian prison system. In this conversation with The Sunday Mail Deputy News Editor, Fr Ribeiro talks about how Ian Smith’s prisons were nothing short of slaughterhouses.
Fr Ribeiro: You find a person coming to Harare Central Prison from Chivhu, Chinhoyi or Bindura already condemned to death. Chivhu did not have a presiding judge, Chinhoyi did not have a presiding judge. These prisoners cannot be condemned to death by a magistrate, no. You cannot have a person coming from Mutoko already condemned to death. The justice system had not spread to provide judges in such areas for this to happen.
There was the explanation that condemned to death by a special court. Special Court? What does special court mean, who is presiding? Is it a judge? Is it the army? Is it the police? Is it a magistrate? What is a special court and who has facilitated it?
These people sentenced to death were said to have gone through the so-called special courts.
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.
Q: You mentioned the issue of prisoners whose sentences were commuted to natural life for a period of about three years. Does this mean the executions had stopped? What was happening?
A: At that time we thought nothing was happening. As I said before, prisoners would come in different classes. Some would come and be housed in D-Hole. This is where we had the persons condemned to death.
We had almost three years of silence or there years of quietness. What I am trying to say is that the assumption is there were no executions.
The last executions had taken place in March 1968. On 6 March, James David Ncedile Dhlamini, Victor Mlambo and Duly Shadreck, who were part of the Crocodile Gang were executed.
On 11 March 1968 we witnessed the executions of Jeremiah Chakauraya and Kanzisi Chirisa Chimusoro, who were both aged 26 and had been sentenced for murder.
From that period, it was silence, there were no “executions” until 15 September 1972 when a Julius and Elliot, whose surnames were not provide, met their fate in the gallows.
It was when I left the prisons that I started reflecting on this era, 1968 to 1971.
This era saw the prisoners having their death sentence being commuted to natural life, which meant they had been spared the hangman’s noose.
But going through the prisoners list, there is Emmanuel Motsi Nyandoro. His name comes up because he is one who came from a unit linked to the Seven Heroes of Chinhoyi.
Nyandoro had his sentenced commuted to natural life. This category of prisoners meant they should die in prison and from natural causes.
But I know he was executed because I was there during the execution. There is Everisto Mururi, he is also one brought in as a mujibhha in the Gumbochuma group. Again I know he had his sentence commuted to natural life, but I also saw him being executed.
Q: The Gumbochuma group, can you tell us more about them?
A: The Noah Gumbochuma group was a unit similar to the Chinhoyi Seven. You see, there was the group in Chinhoyi, known today as the Seven Heroes of Chinhoyi, but there were other groups, in Harare and other locations countrywide.
For example the Chigwada group that was captured in Mutare with a mission to blow up the Feruka pipeline. All these were under one mission but with different targets.
The Gumbochuma group had the likes of Emmanuel Motsi Nyandoro and Chihota.
Their mission or target was Sikombela Restriction Centre where they were supposed to release nationalists restricted there.
Nyandoro was captured and accused of killing whites and had his death sentenced commuted to natural life, but he was executed. What was happening? What was happening to the Guerrillas?
There is also Simon Chomombe, I was present at his execution but he is among those whose death sentenced had been commuted to natural life.
People were being eliminated despite being categorised as supposed to die naturally in prison.
We had the Special Branch coming to prison, but they did not come to us. They went to administration and it ended there.
They could obtain authority to take some prisoners out for further questioning on some other crime.
Whether they would go on and eliminate them or what is another thing because they would have singed them out.
The period 1968 to 1972 is a period that is not interrupted. We had prisoners coming in but we do not see them going out.
There are no formal reports to say they have been executed. Their sentences are commuted to life, but we do not see where they go.
So this is a period I am saying if there are any people whose sentence was commuted to life then and today are still living, come forward and say “here I am”.
I am saying their relatives must say they left prison and are in such and such a place or buried at such a place.
To be continued next week
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