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.”
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 gu-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.