Tsholotso, Zimbabwe – In a school-yard in Zimbabwe‘s Matabeleland region, a group of children laugh as they throw themselves into the air on a rusty set of swings.
It seems like a happy setting, but the children are playing in one of Zimbabwe’s killing fields.
Thirty-four years ago, here in this yard in the Tsholotso district, soldiers shot dead seven teachers at point blank range and dumped them in a pit during the so-called Gukurahundi crackdown in the 1980s.
An estimated 20,000 people were killed when former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe ordered a military campaign against the rival liberation movement, PF- ZAPU.
The man who was the security minister at the time is now Zimbabwe’s president, while the armed forces were headed by men who currently have senior ministerial posts.
Emmerson Mnangagwa, known as the “crocodile” for his political cunning, replaced 93-year-old Mugabe last month.
Mugabe, who ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years, stepped down after a military takeover in the wake of an internal power struggle within the ruling ZANU-PF party.
The downfall of Mugabe has now prompted many witness and victims of the atrocities to speak out for the first time.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, residents in Matabeleland said the southern African nation could not move forward without acknowledging and atoning for past crimes.
Jane Malazi, from Tsholotso, said she was tortured and had to watch her 14-year-old sister being raped.
An uncle was also killed, she said.
“It’s very painful, as I speak it still hurts me,” she told Al Jazeera. “Those who did these things should come and apologise to us, otherwise nothing has changed, we can’t move on.”
Mlomo Sibanda, a survivor of the “Gukurahundi” massacre, said he does not believe Mnangagwa will apologise.
Pointing at the spot where the seven teachers had been buried in Tsholotso, the elderly man said, “They [soldiers] called everyone around this village to come here and dig new toilets.
“But, really, we were digging a grave.”
Witnesses later told him the soldiers made the teachers line up next to the pits before shooting them dead, said Sibanda. They were killed on suspicion of being part of a rebellion.
An unknown number of civilians were among the dead in a series of massacres between 1983 and 1987, carried out by the North Korean-trained Fifth Army Brigade, which was under orders from Mugabe.
The “Gukurahundi” crackdown ended with the signing of the Unity Accord in 1987 between ZANU-PF and PF-ZAPU.
Mnangagwa has denied any role in the killings.
In March 1983, state-run Chronicle newspaper published a report about Mnangagwa defending the Fifth Army Brigade.
“Likening the dissidents to cockroaches and bugs, the minister said the bandit menace had reached such epidemic proportion that the Government had to bring in “DDT” (the 5th brigade) to get rid of the bandits,” the report read.
Meanwhile, Christopher Mutsuvangwa, a senior Mnangagwa adviser, said bringing up the past was “simply unhelpful” and “irresponsible”.
“Zimbabwe needs a break,” he told Al Jazeera.
“To continuously re-dig its past, to settle scores from the past, as if it cannot grasp the future … It diverts energy away from what should be done.
“Every country followed a tortured history … You make mistakes. You make false starts.”
Mnangagwa, speaking at his inauguration, said he wanted to help create jobs, reimburse farmers whose lands were seized and stamp out corruption.
He has also promised presidential elections next year.
Back in a village deep in the bush, Sibanda, the man from the Tsholotsho school, bowed his head in prayer before a stone plaque etched with the names of 23 people, mainly women, who were locked in a house and burned alive.
He asked for help and comfort.
His words, carrying the anger and pain of tens of thousands of people, shattered the stillness there.