The Next Killing Field

Nov 04, 2002 03:00 AM EST

In 1932, who believed Germans would systematically slaughter German Jews by the millions? In spring of 1994, how many of us in an allegedly savvier, Internet-informed world were ready to believe Rwandan Hutus intended to hack to death 800,000 Tutsis in an orgy of macabre machete violence?

Pay attention to Zimbabwe, a nation brutalized by the rapidly decaying regime of dictator Robert Mugabe. Zimbabwe may well be the next genocidal killing field, with the Matebele tribe the target of Mr. Mugabe's Shona.

In February, this column described Mr. Mugabe as the Slobodan Milosevic of Africa. Both the Shona and the Serb are thieves, "former Marxists" and ethnic cleansers who provoke ethnic strife, incite economic envy, murder opponents and do so under the propaganda cover of righting long-term historical wrongs. For beasts like Mr. Mugabe and Mr. Milosevic, "righting historical wrongs" means killing your ethnic enemies.

I recently returned from three weeks in East Africa, examining micro-development projects run by Africans for Africans. What a good news story. But bad news is like bad money — it drives out the good. Across the continent, I encountered Zimbabweans who recounted the last four years' terrible spiral of events, as Mr. Mugabe's corrupt government turned Zimbabwe from a food exporter to a land stalked by famine. The past 30 months have been dreadful. The gross domestic product has shrunk 25 percent, with inflation up 135 percent.

Mr. Mugabe's taste for tribal brutality isn't new. In 1980, with the aid of North Korean military advisers, Mr. Mugabe's Shona tribe savaged the Matabele tribe. From 7,000 to 10,000 Matabele were killed. The world ignored the attacks. At the time, Mr. Mugabe was a hero to "global progressives," having toppled the white racist regime of Ian Smith in the former British colony of Southern Rhodesia.

Now comes a report from the London Times that indicates Mr. Mugabe intends to pull a Milosevic-style Kosovo on the Matabele, with an even larger body count. The document opens with this breathless passage: For the eyes of the Shona elite only. Please pass to most trusted person. Progress review on the 1979 grand plan."

The document was obtained by Matthew Parris. Mr. Parris once served in the Rhodesian government, so he'll be dismissed by "progressives." Given Mr. Mugabe's track record and the bitter fact of Rwanda, that would be a terrible mistake.

According to Shona tribal history, in the 19th century, the Matabele entered Shona country (after fleeing Zulus) and took Shona land. Mr. Parris describes it as a narrative that fits the Shona's "tribal nationalism," just like Mr. Milosevic's "Kosovo recovery" fit into a Serbian litany of historical wrong.

The Shona now live in central and northern Zimbabwe and make up 70 percent of Zimbabwe's 13 million people. The Matabele are at about 15 percent.

The "grand plan" outlines a political, cultural and genocidal campaign for pushing the Matabele back into South Africa.

Mr. Mugabe has systematically kicked Zimbabwe's white farmers out of the country and given those farms to his henchmen. Famine is the result. Now, Mr. Mugabe must distract the hungry, and an anti-Matabele campaign serves his immediate political needs.

Mr. Parris is even more blunt: "A fight with the Matabele would enhance Mugabe's troubled position among his own people."

Here's a key line in the "grand plan": "For many years both the Ndebeles [Matabele] and Europeans were living under a shameful illusion that the crimes of their forefathers had been forgiven. This was not to be, as [Mugabe] the illustrious son of the Shona people ensured that the two groups pay dearly for the evil deeds of the ancestors."

These deeds included rape and looting. So what's the "grand plan" means of rectification? The rape and looting of the Matabele.

Could the "grand plan" be a forgery instead of a "Mein Kampf"? Sure. Mr. Mugabe, however, has been stoking these ethnic hatreds.

The Shona, however, are no monolith. Many Shona oppose Mugabe. The Matabele are also capable of resisting.

But what happens if ethnic savagery begins? Send British paratroopers? That's a thought, though Mr. Mugabe would portray that as the return of the white colonialists. The real regional peacekeeper is South Africa. Though the South African government has shied away from involving itself with Zimbabwe's internal troubles, it cannot ignore a genocide on its northern border.

By Austin Bay