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Monday, 4 June 2007

Journalist who first exposed Matabeleland atrocities!

By Donald Trelford

Last updated: 11/10/2006 13:31:34


Donald Trelford was on the brink of being sacked as Observer editor by tycoon Tiny Rowland after he exposed atrocities in Matabeleland. Now, close to two decades later, he reveals the full story of the scandal that may yet end Robert Mugabe's presidency

It began in the parched earth of Matabeleland, among the cactus and the baobab trees, and ended over lunch in a Park Lane casino, served by long-legged girls in fishnet tights.

For two hectic weeks the battle was monitored in every news bulletin, causing anguished debates about press freedom in Parliament and the media - and almost led to the The Observer being sold to Robert Maxwell.

The public row between me, as editor of The Observer, and Tiny Rowland, then chief executive of Lonrho, the international conglomerate which had bought the newspaper three years before, grew into a Fleet Street soap opera that overshadowed the tragic human story that provoked it - the suffering of the minority Ndebele people at the hands of the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade of the Zimbabwe Army.

This story may now finally emerge, for the Supreme Court has ordered President Mugabe to publish an official report into the atrocities which he has suppressed for 19 years. These revelations could even hasten his overthrow.
After two decades, during which the economy has been ruined and corruption rife, Mugabe is looking vulnerable. He lost a referendum designed to entrench his constitutional position. In crude moves to boost his popularity, he has been encouraging Africans to take over white farms and has stoked up an international incident with Britain by opening our diplomatic bags in breach of the Vienna Convention.

For the first time since independence, however, the opposition has teeth and observers believe he can survive only by moving the electoral goalposts. Mugabe ruled supreme when I met him in April 1984. I went to interview him for the country's fourth anniversary of independence for a current affairs series on Channel 4. I also planned to write a piece for The Observer. I told Rowland about the visit as a courtesy, since his company had started in the former Rhodesia (hence 'Lonrho') and had major business interests there.

That was a mistake, since it gave Rowland an opportunity to ingratiate himself with Mugabe ('I have arranged for my editor to publish an interview in The Observer ') and repair relations that had been damaged by Lonrho's long support for the opposition leader, Joshua Nkomo. (I heard later that Lonrho had also supported Mugabe's Zanu party, but Mugabe never heard about this, because the cash had stuck to the fingers of an emissary who had used it to buy himself a house in Hampstead.)

When I arrived in Harare, I was met by Rowland's Zimbabwe 'fixer', Godwin Matatu, who whisked me off for lunch with Lonrho's local board. The interview was clearly to be a Lonrho production and Matatu, a gregarious, alcoholic journalist who died in 1989, was to be my minder.
The Mugabe interview was disastrously dull, unusable for television, of interest only to a specialist African magazine (where, in fact, it subsequently appeared). When I asked him if he would consider a political rather than a military solution in Matabeleland, where a curfew had been in force since February, he replied bluntly: 'The solution is a military one. Their grievances are unfounded. The verdict of the voters was cast in 1980. They should have accepted defeat then.' Then he added chillingly: 'The situation in Matabeleland is one that requires a change. The people must be reoriented.'

“The situation in Matabeleland is one that requires a change. The people must be reoriented” - Mugabe
After I had appeared as guest of the week on ZBC, I was recognised by a group of Africans in the lobby of Meikles Hotel. One took me aside conspiratorially: 'You should go to Matabeleland to see what is happening to our people there. There are terrible things.' He hurried away, as if afraid to be overheard.

No media had been allowed inside the curfew area for 10 weeks, but there were rumours about brutal treatment of the population by Mugabe's soldiers, ostensibly searching for 'dissidents' from across the Botswana border. I said to Matatu: 'Let's go to Bulawayo in the morning.'
We found little sign there of military activity, just the odd 'hippo' armoured personnel carrier trundling along a dirt road with mounted guns, or a truck-load of troops with rocket-propelled grenades on their AK-47 rifles. Rain had made the Lowveld roads almost unpassable.
Schoolgirls were marching quietly in green check dresses or lying in the shade; old men scratching with hoes; cattle standing in the dry river beds; goats, donkeys, marmosets, even a kudu bull, dashing across the road.

We knew we weren't allowed officially into the curfew area, but asked our driver to brave the roadblocks anyway. We passed three without bother, all manned cheerily by policemen in brown boots, then Matatu did some name-dropping to persuade a tough-looking soldier to let us through. We were able to drive through the no-go areas, past Kezi, Antelope Mine, Bhalagwe Camp - all names, I learned later, that filled the Ndebele with dread. We saw nothing unusual.
Around 10pm, there was a call from the hotel reception to say that a man wanted to deliver a letter. An African tapped on the door and handed it over. It read simply: 'Please accompany this friend.' Moving quietly to avoid disturbing Matatu next door, I followed the man to the car park, where a headlight beamed in recognition.

I had no idea where I was going, or who with; and nobody knew where I'd gone. I knew instinctively that I couldn't take Matatu with me. Apart from the Lonrho connection, he was a Shona and close to the government and his presence would have deterred people from speaking honestly.

I climbed nervously into the car and was taken in silence for several miles out of town into the curfew area. There - after a semi-comic interlude in which we gave a lift to a policeman - we stopped at a remote house, pipped horns for ages, and finally changed cars with another man.
He took us for another long ride to a religious mission where, for much of the night, I was given a series of eyewitness accounts, sworn affidavits and signed statements from victims of the Matabeleland atrocities. These were graphic, horrific and profoundly moving.

One name kept recurring, as in a nightmare. Brigadier Shiri, known as Black Jesus, was head of the Fifth Brigade. And there was one recurring story, about a major who held up a dead baby and told villagers: 'This is what will happen to your babies if you help dissidents.' He then dropped the tiny corpse in the dust.

Back in the car again, I met a man from Esigodoni village who had been beaten close to death by agents of the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) in front of his family. They were warned they would be shot if they uttered a sound. 'They began beating us with sticks and guns, bayoneting us, burning plastic against our skin while our hands and mouths were secured. They tore curtains, put cushions into our mouths. We were tortured for about four hours.'

A man called Jason was brought to the house. He had been chopping trees at Welonke when two soldiers turned up with fixed bayonets and whips on their belts. They asked if he and his wife had seen any dissidents and grew increasingly angry when they said they hadn't. They beat his wife and grandmother and took him away.

Neighbours were collected and they all marched on, their progress broken by periodic beatings and a fight they were forced to stage for the soldiers' entertainment. At the village school they shot two children who had tried to run away. Eventually nine of them were forced to dig a hole to a depth of two or three feet and ordered to jump into it.

Jason told me: 'The commander leaned against a tree, opened his radio cassette and shot five men. On the grave we put branches. I also saw a big grave which had stones in it. There are 16 buried in this grave.'

Earlier I had come across Peter Godwin, of the Sunday Times, who said bodies had been thrown down a nearby mineshaft owned by Lonrho. (Later, Roy Hattersley was sued by Rowland for making this claim in a speech - what Rowland never knew was that I had helped draft Hattersley's speech.)

Godwin had already got some atrocity stories into print, but he was inhibited by the fact that he couldn't betray his presence in the curfew area for fear of being expelled or, as a Zimbabwean himself, suffering even worse retribution. Once he understood that I hadn't been sent by Rowland to put a Mugabe spin on the situation, we exchanged useful information.

I returned to the hotel at dawn, checked out without waking Matatu, then flew to London via Harare, arriving on Saturday morning with my story written. While in Harare I had two conversations. One was with a military attaché at the British High Commission, who wasn't at all surprised by the news from Matabeleland.

The other was with a South African director of Lonrho, Nick Kruger, who wasn't surprised either. 'What you have discovered, Donald,' he said, 'is the eternal truth of Africa. Stuff them, then they stuff you. For centuries we stuffed the blacks; now it's their turn to stuff us. The Ndebele stuffed the Shona; now it's the Shonas' turn. '
My dilemma on returning - should I publish an anodyne interview with Mugabe or tell the truth about Matabeleland, thereby damaging the interests of my proprietor? - has since been written up as a classic case by the Institute of Global Ethics. For me, there was no choice.
I decided to ring Tiny around 5pm on Saturday, too late for him to do anything to stop publication, but before he could hear the news from anyone else. He slammed the telephone down after threatening the direst revenge.

“And there was one recurring story, about a major who held up a dead baby and told villagers: 'This is what will happen to your babies if you help dissidents.' He then dropped the tiny corpse in the dust”
Next morning I turned on the BBC eight o'clock news to hear my story condemned as lies in an official statement by Mugabe, supported by a letter of apology from Rowland: 'I take full responsibility for what in my view was discourteous, disingenuous and wrong in the editor of a serious newspaper widely read in Africa'. He described me as 'an incompetent reporter' and announced that I would be dismissed.

I went ahead with a planned holiday to Guernsey, but quickly returned on the advice of Lord Goodman, the former Observer chairman, who said I must be seen on the bridge of my ship. The story was front-page news for a fortnight, 'the most entertaining hullabaloo', as one writer put it, 'since Harry Evans fell out with Rupert Murdoch'.

Rowland wrote me an open letter, which he distributed to all papers before I could see it, saying Lonrho would not go on supporting a failing editor who showed no concern for their commercial interests. I replied in kind, pointing out that the circulation had actually gone up by 22 per cent in the eight years I had been editor. The Daily Mail published both letters in full under the headlines 'Dear Donald' and 'Dear Tiny'.

Rowland insisted that I should go back to Zimbabwe for a longer investigation. I refused, on the grounds that I had already established the truth of my story and that to do so would endanger the lives of my sources.

The Foreign Office, more concerned about relations with Mugabe than with human rights and doubtless sensitive that Britain had provided some training for the Fifth Brigade, was briefing against me. I learnt this from Prince Charles, with whom I happened to have lunch at that time. 'The Foreign Office tell me you were wrong about Matabeleland,' he said airily. I ate my soup in silence.

Not all the papers were on my side. Paul Johnson said editors had no business trying to be reporters. John Junor wrote: 'If Mr Trelford truly feels that way about Mr Rowland, wouldn't it be more honourable for him to stop accepting Mr Rowland's money?' The Times suggested I had forced a showdown deliberately. The Daily Telegraph said: 'Those who pay the piper must be expected to demand some influence over the choice of tunes he plays.'

The Guardian said the paper should 'find its salvation where the people who write the cheques and the people who write the words can work together'. This proved difficult at The Observer when Lonrho announced it was withdrawing financial support. Provoked by a ruling from The Observer 's independent directors that Rowland had interfered improperly, it put a hard-faced accountant in the office to stop me spending money.

This brought questions in Parliament. When Peter Shore for Labour asked Norman Tebbit what he planned to do to protect the editorial independence of the editor of The Observer, the Secretary for Trade and Industry clearly enjoyed saying 'Nothing'. This was soon after the paper's revelations about Mark Thatcher's business connections with Oman.

The Observer 's journalists were highly supportive of their editor - until Rowland let it be known he was planning to sell the paper to Maxwell. A meeting at Claridges was announced for the next day. I knew Rowland would never sell to Maxwell and this was just a bluff to frighten the journalists. If so, it certainly worked.

I was interested to hear an interview with Maxwell about The Observer on my car radio. He 'greatly admired' me, he said, and would retain me as editor. Then, asked what he would have done about the Mark Thatcher stories, he paused and replied in his deepest tones: 'I'd have stamped on him.'

By now I felt the paper was being damaged and something had to be done to break the deadlock. So I wrote to Rowland offering my resignation - 'I could not allow the paper's future and the prospects of its staff to be jeopardised by my personal position, which sadly seems to be all that stands in the way of the paper's development.'

Rowland seized the olive branch and we made up over an edgy lunch in the incongruous ambience of one of Lonrho's London casinos. Undeterred by the pop music and scantily dressed females, we concocted a priceless statement that we shared an affection for three things - Africa, The Observer and each other.

For us and for the paper, that was the end of a remarkable and in some ways entertaining episode. For the people of Matabeleland, however, it provided only brief illumination before the darkness came again - Guardian
Donald Trelford was editor of The Observer from 1975 to 1993 and is now Professor of Journalism Studies at Sheffield University

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