At least 105 people have been murdered over the past three months in “machete wars” fought between criminal gangs in Zimbabwe, according to a report from a non-governmental organization called the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP).
According to the ZPP, the brutal gang battle is being fought over “artisanal mining” operations, which basically means unlicensed and frequently amateurish efforts by small teams to eke some gold or a few precious stones out of small impromptu digs or larger mines that have been abandoned by corporations.
Artisanal mining is notoriously dangerous since the operations are poorly planned, employ very simple equipment, and make few safety provisions, but there are so many of the operations running across Zimbabwe that they actually haul in more gold in total than the corporate mines.
The Zimbabwean government estimates over half a million artisanal miners are currently plying their risky trade. The government is currently looking for ways to regulate and tax the operations, an exceptionally challenging endeavor because the laws governing small mining operations are surprisingly vague and the state made a major effort to decriminalize small mining operations years ago to encourage more digging.
As the ZPP report outlined, artisanal miners who survive their workday without incident have to worry about getting robbed or hacked to pieces with machetes when they emerge from their digs. The Kadoma mining area is now the leading source of murder and assault in Zimbabwe, with attacks occurring almost every day.
“The gangs are assaulting, harassing and degrading ordinary citizens and at times robbing them around Kadoma city. These figures indicate that there is a marked increase in lawlessness in the area and innocent citizens are also suffering at the hands of mining gangs,” the ZPP said.
The miners are packing machetes and other weapons of their own to defend themselves against the gangs, whose leaders are known as mabhuru (“big bulls”).
“Here if you cannot protect your gold ore from these mabhuru, you can lose everything that you have worked for if they pounce on you when you are just finishing getting two weeks’ ore out of the pit and they load it into their truck and take it straight to the mill while you watch,” one miner lamented to TRTWorld.
He added that machetes are also used to settle disputed claims between groups of miners, to settle the “bitter grudges” that often ensue when someone strikes it rich, and increasingly to resolve petty disputes over alcohol, cigarettes, and women.
TRTWorld recounted the story from August of a man who was severely injured by a machete gang that actually followed him into the hospital to finish him off. The hospital staff was so accustomed to such assaults and vendettas that they had quickly and quietly transferred the injured man to another facility, thwarting the effort to murder him.
The authorities made an effort to reduce violence by banning machetes, axes, knives, and catapults. Zimbabwe is one of the few jurisdictions to boast catapult control laws. People have been arrested for violating them.