It began with a tip-off from a former head of an international humanitarian organization who used to be based in Zimbabwe. There was an explosive dossier detailing heinous crimes of the Gukurahundi — a series of massacres of civilians carried out by the Zimbabwe National Army in the 1980s — and had been kept under lock and key for decades. Earlier this year, the Botswana-based INK Centre for Investigative Journalism tracked down the mystery dossier and, in July, broke the story. Here’s how we did it.
While many reports about the killings existed in the public domain, this particular one had been a closely guarded secret due to allegations that the international community was complicit, particularly the UK. We were told that somewhere in the dusty libraries of universities, or government institutions, was a report with details of extrajudicial killings of the Ndebele-speaking people by a Zimbabwean army acting on the command of the recently-deposed president Robert Mugabe.
“Gukurahundi” loosely translates from the Shona language (one of the main languages spoken in Zimbabwe, alongside English and Ndebele) to mean “the early rain that washes away the chaff.” The killings bearing that name left as many as 20,000 dead between 1983 and 1987. Mugabe had deployed the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade soldiers in the Matebeleland and Midlands areas of Zimbabwe in the early 1980s to quell dissident threats, an operation that resulted in the well-documented atrocities.
An exhaustive search for the dossier — the first-ever to provide names of the deceased and expose blow-by-blow accounts of how the executions were carried out — took place in the streets and corridors of the University of Oxford, by African reporters who were there on a fellowship with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Together with Zimbabwean reporters, whose names have been withheld for security reasons, we embarked on locating the 35-year-old report.
Many reports have been published about the atrocities of Gukurahundi but this is the first-ever dossier that provided victims’ names and accounts of the executions.
Taking the lead, the Zimbabwean reporters laid the groundwork and set the direction for the search. This involved tracking down relevant people who knew about the dossier in Zimbabwe and the United Kingdom.
For three decades, few people knew about the existence of the dossier, and even fewer discussed it. That is, until Zimbabwe’s November 2017 coup d’état, when President Emmerson Mnangagwa, one of the chief enforcers of Mugabe’s regime, took power.
And that’s when everyone seemed to begin talking, albeit with restraint. Soon the team was not only aware of the existence of the dossier but of its possible whereabouts. Apparently there were only two places where we could find it: In Mugabe’s office or somewhere in the United Kingdom. But where exactly in the UK?
Because the dossier was first prepared in 1983, during the first months of the massacres, it was questionable whether we’d be able to talk to the authors. However, after months of research, we found someone with deep knowledge of the report’s contents. On condition of anonymity, the source agreed to give us much-needed direction, at a time when we almost gave up.
Somewhere in Oxford
Thanks to our source, we traced one copy of the dossier to a library at the University of Oxford; another copy was found at the University of Cambridge. The librarians took plenty of cajoling.