By CELIA W. DUGGER
BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe — The exhibit at the National Gallery is now a crime scene, the artwork banned and the artist charged with insulting President Robert Mugabe. The picture windows that showcased graphic depictions of atrocities committed in the early years of Mr. Mugabe’s 30-year-long rule are now papered over with the yellowing pages of a state-controlled newspaper.
But the government’s efforts to bury history have instead provoked slumbering memories of the Gukurahundi, Zimbabwe’s name for the slaying and torture of thousands of civilians here in the Matabeleland region a quarter century ago.
“You can suppress art exhibits, plays and books, but you cannot remove the Gukurahundi from people’s hearts,” said Pathisa Nyathi, a historian here. “It is indelible.”
Downtown Bulawayo has the sleepy rhythms of a farm town, but the psychic wounds of the Gukurahundi fester beneath its placid surface.
As Zimbabwe heads anxiously toward another election season, a recent survey by Afrobarometer has found that 70 percent of Zimbabweans are afraid they will be victims of political violence or intimidation, as thousands were in the 2008 elections. But an equal proportion want the voting to go forward this year nonetheless, evidence of their deep desire for democracy and the willingness of many to vote against Mr. Mugabe at great personal risk, analysts say.
In few places do such sentiments about violence in public life run as deep as here, and in recent months the government — whether through missteps or deliberate provocation — has rubbed them ever more raw.
Before the World Cup in South Africa in June, a minister in Mr. Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF, invited the North Korean soccer team, on behalf of Zimbabwe’s tourism authority, to base itself in Bulawayo before the games began, a gesture that roused a ferocious outcry. After all, it was North Korea that trained and equipped the infamous Fifth Brigade, which historians estimate killed at least 10,000 civilians in the Ndebele minority between 1983 and 1987.
“To us it opened very old wounds,” Thabitha Khumalo, a member of Parliament, said of the attempt to bring the North Korean team to the Ndebele heartland. “We’re being reminded of the most horrible pain. How dare they? Our loved ones are still buried in pit latrines, mine shafts and shallow graves.”
Ms. Khumalo, interviewed while the invitation was still pending last year, wept as she summoned memories of the day that destroyed her family — Feb. 12, 1983.
She was 12 years old. She said soldiers from the Fifth Brigade, wearing jaunty red berets, came to her village and lined up her family. One soldier slit open her pregnant aunt’s belly with a bayonet and yanked out the baby. She said her grandmother was forced to pound the fetus to a pulp in a mortar and pestle. Her father was made to rape his mother. Her uncles were shot point blank.
Such searing memories stoked protests, and in the end the North Korean team did not come to Zimbabwe. But feelings were further inflamed months later when the government erected a larger-than-life bronze statue of Joshua Nkomo — a liberation hero, an Ndebele and a rival to Mr. Mugabe — that, incredibly, was made in North Korea.
Last September, bowing to public outcry over the statue’s origin (and protests from Mr. Nkomo’s family that its plinth was too small), the statue was removed from a major intersection in Bulawayo. It now stands neglected in a weedy lot behind the Natural History Museum here.
Inside the museum hangs a portrait of a vigorous and dapper Mr. Mugabe in oversize glasses. He turns 87 next month. A massive stuffed crocodile, his family’s clan totem, dominates one gallery, its teeth long and sharp, its mouth agape. The signboard notes the crocodile’s lifespan exceeds 80 years.
Mr. Mugabe signed a pact with North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, to train the infamous army brigade just months after Zimbabwe gained independence from white minority rule in 1980. Mr. Mugabe declared the brigade would be named “Gukurahundi” (pronounced guh-kura-HUN-di), which means “the rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rains.” He said it was needed to quell violent internal dissent, but historians say he used it to attack Mr. Nkomo’s political base and to impose one-party rule.
Mr. Mugabe’s press secretary, George Charamba, said the president had called the Gukurahundi “a moment of madness,” but asked whether Mr. Mugabe had apologized for the campaign, Mr. Charamba bristled.
“You can’t call it a moment of madness without critiquing your own past,” he said. “I hope people are not looking to humiliate the president. I hope they’re just looking at allowing him to get by healing this nation. For us, that is uppermost. Our sense of embitterment, our sense of recompense may not be exactly what you saw at Nuremburg.”
Downtown Bulawayo has the sleepy rhythms of a farm town, but the psychic wounds of the Gukurahundi fester beneath its placid surface. At the National Gallery here, the stately staircase leading to the shuttered Gukurahundi exhibit is now blocked by a sign that says “No Entry.” But the paintings, on walls saturated with blood-red paint, can still be glimpsed from the gallery above, through the bars of balconies. The paintings themselves seem to be jailed.
Voti Thebe, who heads the National Gallery, said the artist, Owen Maseko, created the Gukurahundi exhibit to contribute to reconciliation. There was no money, so Mr. Maseko, 35, did it on his own time. He was just a boy at the time of the Gukurahundi, but he recalls the sounds of hovering helicopters and sirens.
“The memories are still there,” he said. “The victims are still alive. It’s not something we can just forget.”
In a large painting, a row of faces are shown with mouths open in wordless screams. In another, women and children weep what seem to be tears of blood. Three papier-mâché corpses, one hanging upside down, fill a picture window. Throughout the galleries are recurrent, menacing images of a man in oversize glasses — Mr. Mugabe.
The day after the exhibit opened last year, it was closed down. Mr. Maseko was detained, then transferred to prison in leg irons before being released on bail. Mr. Maseko’s case awaits the Supreme Court’s attention. He is charged with insulting the president and communicating falsehoods prejudicial to the state, a charge punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
David Coltart, a politician from Bulawayo who is arts minister in the power-sharing government of ZANU-PF and its political rivals, said he warned cabinet ministers that prosecuting Mr. Maseko could turn the case into a cause célèbre and inflame divisions. Mr. Coltart, who has long fought the Mugabe government, said he also appealed directly to Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was security minister during the Gukurahundi.
“It is only when nations grapple with their past, in its reality, not as a biased fiction, that they can start to deal with that past,” Mr. Coltart said in a lecture delivered above Mr. Maseko’s show. He called the Gukurahundi “a politicide, if not a genocide.”
The Bulawayo playwright Cont Mhlanga knows the costs of free expression. His play “The Good President” was shut down on opening night here in 2007 when baton-wielding riot police officers stormed the theater.
The lead character is a grandmother who lies to her two grandsons about the death of their father. He had been buried alive in the Gukurahundi. But the boys, ignorant of the truth, become beneficiaries of the Mugabe government, one of them an abusive policeman, the other a recipient of seized farmland. The play’s title refers, Mr. Mhlanga said, to African leaders who call Mr. Mugabe a good president, “this man who has blood on his hands.”
Mr. Mhlanga says he feels “like someone has put huge pieces of tape over my mouth,” but insists that artists must express what people are terrified of saying. “We live in a society where we’re so afraid, even of our own shadows,” he said. “To create democratic space in a society like ours, we have to deal with fear.”