Thousands have been killed or tortured by the Zimbabwean dictator. Here are the stories of three.
For 17 years, Holly Moyo was one of the many loyal foot soldiers who helped keep the government of Robert Mugabe running. Like his father before him, he served in the Zimbabwean Republic Police, in the southern city of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest. He was assigned to the corps that handles crowd control at large protests. Over the past few years especially, as political turmoil increased in this once prosperous southern African nation, his was a busy job.
Like most black Zimbabweans, the 42-year-old husband and father once was a supporter of Robert Mugabe. “I still remember when he was in jail,” Moyo says, citing the ten-year period that began in 1964. Mugabe became a Mandela-like figure for the country’s black majority, and in 1980 was elected president in the country’s first democratic vote. Zimbabwe soon posted high literacy and economic growth. But by the time of the 2002 presidential election, Moyo wanted change. “Our economy was going to the dogs,” he said. And things have only gotten worse since. The country is now crippled by 80 percent unemployment, astronomical inflation rates, and massive shortages of food.
Many wonder why Zimbabwe has not experienced an armed revolt under Mugabe. One hears the complaint, especially among blacks in the region, that Zimbabwean blacks are too docile, too kind, too respectful of authority for their own good. “The people are resigned,” a Zimbabwean journalist told me. But there are other reasons a coup–at least a coup emanating from the military or security forces–is unlikely. One is the lingering awe for Mugabe as liberation leader that some still no doubt feel. The most acute reason, however, is that any dissent within the security forces, even from low-ranking officers, is met with a strong show of force.
Consider Holly Moyo’s experience. In the run-up to the March 2002 election, Moyo says, officers from the Police Internal Security Intelligence (PISI) infiltrated the police so as “to find out who was against Mugabe.” As every major election-observer group (except, notably, African ones) would confirm, “Mugabe incorporated the police into his own instruments” for stealing the election.
So when the election finally rolled around, Moyo decided to take a risk and call in sick. Police officers vote at their workplaces, under the careful eye of their superiors, not at neutral locations like town halls or civic centers. Moyo says he and his colleagues were told by their boss, “You put your ‘X’ on ZANU-PF,” the ruling party. “They said our salary is being paid for by Mugabe,” Moyo recalls. “But it is being paid for by the common people.” Moyo figured that his secret ballot was the only weapon he had to use against the dictatorship. To him, the risk was worth it.
Moyo’s ploy failed. A plainclothes police spy saw him at a public polling place on Election Day and reported him immediately to his supervisors. “We know whom you voted for,” Moyo was told. The police spy even described what Moyo had been wearing.
“My vote is my secret,” Moyo responded. He was told, “The only secrets belong to ZANU-PF,” and handed a resignation form, which he refused to sign. In a country with such a weak economy, his job was his only means of caring for his wife and children.
When he got home that day, he found PISI officers searching his house. They beat him, and his parents told him to “leave because you are going to die.”
But Moyo chose to stay, even to become more forthright in his politics. He began taking the Daily News, an independent newspaper, to work, in order to share it covertly with like-minded officers. The Daily News had suffered firebomb attacks on its Harare office; it would eventually be shut down.
Moyo was a dutiful employee of the police force, but he took seriously his public servant’s pledge to uphold the rule of law. In late 2003, in spite of the certain political repercussions, he oversaw the arrest of 37 ZANU-PF supporters for rioting. This was the last straw. He and others were accused of being “British spies and stooges.” He was forced to sign resignation papers, was dismissed from the force in February 2004 with a pittance for severance pay, and his house was put under 24-hour surveillance by the security forces.
But it was only in October that year that things spiraled out of control. “They came to me during the night,” Moyo recalled, familiar words to many a Zimbabwean. At around 11 P.M., when he was on his way home from town, six or seven men emerged from a Land Rover and began to beat him. “They said I was going to die for Tsvangirai,” he said, Morgan Tsvangirai being the leader of the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change. The men took a knife to his genitals, and Moyo soon passed out.
His wife found him. “My wife screamed, she screamed. There was blood everywhere.” Parts of his mutilated penis were on his knee. Neighbors took him to the hospital where administrators gave him a bed but denied him treatment, other than painkillers, for four days. Thanks to sympathetic nurses who took him into their care, the damage was not as bad as it could have been, but his testicles were “cut into pieces” and the scars of his skinned penis will never go away. His wife was jailed for eight days for making a report to the police.
After a week, he was discharged. Unable to obtain painkillers once he left the hospital, he started drinking heavily to dull the pain. He keeps photos of his wounds–“in case we want to go to court one day.”
Moyo believed it was only a matter of time before the government returned to finish the job. He felt he had no choice but to leave Zimbabwe. He sent his children to his parents’ home, and on December 30, 2004, friends helped push him through his bathroom window at 3 in the morning so that the men watching his house would not see him escape. He and his wife now live in South Africa, in a tiny, one-room house–apartheid-era servant’s quarters in the backyard of a luxury home–in a tony northern suburb of Johannesburg. He hasn’t seen his children for almost two years. He was lucky to receive political asylum. A Zimbab wean exile organization helped cover the costs of reconstructive surgery.
As he tells me this, and shows me a photo of his younger self as a proud police officer in uniform, Moyo is in tears. “Things are going to be okay in Zimbabwe one day,” he tells me. “We are going to go back home.”
Dean du Plessis is one of the few white people left in Zimbabwe. He is 29 years old and blind. Most impressive about this remarkable man who displays more joie de vivre than most people who can see is that he has made a name for himself as a cricket commentator on the radio. He broadcasts daily from 5 to 6 P.M. on the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation and has also done commentary for the BBC. He thinks he is the first blind sportscaster in the world. For most of his schooling, he attended the Pioneer School for the Blind, in South Africa. Aside from his disability, he is a regular guy. “I like girls, good beer, and loud music,” he tells me when I meet him at a favorite bar.
But he too has been a victim of the Mugabe regime, and his story shows how depraved it has become.
To understand what happened to Dean du Plessis, one must first understand something about Zimbabwean cricket. The national cricket team, like nearly every other facet of Zimbabwean life, has been forcibly politicized in recent years. It used to be one of the best cricket teams, if not the best, in the world. But at around the same time Mugabe began authorizing violent seizures of white-owned farms, he packed the Zimbabwe Cricket Union with ZANU-PF hacks. In April 2004, Heath Streak, one of the country’s best cricketers and the national team’s captain, was forced to resign over disputes related to racial quotas that led to the firing of many white players. Over the past several years, black and white players alike have quit as a result of political differences with those in charge. In a December 2005 broadcast, du Plessis stated the obvious about the condition of Zimbabwean cricket. “I criticized the people that run Zimbabwe cricket,” he told me matter-of-factly. “They don’t know anything about the sport.”
The day after his broadcast, two men came to the Harare Toyota dealership where du Plessis works as a customer service representative. They told him to come with them. Although du Plessis could not see them, he knew what they had in mind. Still, du Plessis did not make a scene. “I didn’t want to cause any attention,” he says. “I didn’t want anyone else to get involved; it’s not fair on them.”
The two men drove him for about a half hour, took him to an air-conditioned room, and sat him in what he describes as a “comfortable chair.” They then played a recording of the broadcast in question.
“Is that you?” one of the men asked.
“You can hear my voice,” du Plessis responded. “Why are you asking me?”
Disappointed with his insubordination, the men twisted his feet and beat his soles with a fan belt for half an hour. This is a form of torture common in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and human rights NGOs have reported its being perpetrated against many individuals. Known as “falanga,” it is used in other locales and is popular with dictatorships because it leaves few visible signs as the soles of the feet are thick and tough.
Up until our interview, du Plessis had not spoken of this torment.
Like many Zimbabweans, he too has fond memories of Mugabe’s early years. He met the president in 1982, when Mugabe and his widely admired first wife, Sally, visited du Plessis’s school. The president rubbed his head. “In those years I was very scared of the sirens,” he explains, speaking of the president’s ubiquitous motorcade. In a foreshadowing of his future outspokenness, du Plessis piped up as the First Family made their way to their car, “Please, Mr. Mugabe, I’ve got a terrible headache. Please don’t put on the sirens.” The motorcade left quietly, “like sedate human beings,” du Plessis recalls. “Years ago Mugabe never used to be like this,” he says, shaking his head. “In general, he was a very good man.”
Du Plessis continues to broadcast, but he is careful about what he says. “I love my country. . . . Being away [at school] in South Africa I was deprived of growing up in the country I love so much.”
Few American college students could readily identify with the difficulties endured by Givemore Chari, age 23. As a student at Bindura University of Science Education, in the ZANU-PF stronghold of Mashona land Central Province, Chari helped to lead a democracy movement. Now he must do so in exile.
Zimbabwe’s system of higher education, heavily dependent on state funds, has suffered greatly from the country’s economic unraveling, which has predictably led to student unrest. Student-led protests at the increase of tuition fees and other, more grave political provocations are a common occurrence. At Bindura, the outspoken Chari was president of the Student Representatives’ Council. In October 2005 he was suspended, not for academic infractions or hard partying, but for allegedly sowing “feelings of hate and dislike.”
Given Zimbabwe’s 13 universities and large student population, it is not difficult to see why the government considers students “a major threat within the composition of the democratic forces” in the country, Chari says. He himself feels an obligation to the ordinary Zimbabwean, whose taxes support higher education but who often cannot send his own children to college. “I am bound to be his voice when he is oppressed and is voiceless, I am bound to speak for him. I am bound to free that individual. Neglecting him when I am benefiting from the tax that is coming from his sweat is tantamount to betrayal.”
In May of this year, Chari attended the annual conference of the Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU) in Harare. One of President Mugabe’s ubiquitous portraits was hanging in the conference room. “His staying in power [after the rigged 2002 election] was illegitimate as far as we were concerned,” Chari says. “The idea of respecting him and having his picture in our conference room was like legitimizing” his election-stealing. So the students carefully removed the presidential portrait and turned it over to the police officers standing watch. Forty-eight students including Chari were arrested at the end of the three-day conference on trumped-up charges.
In prison, he and the others were “brutally assaulted” by guards and denied access to any sort of medical treatment or food until the next day–and then only after human rights lawyers intervened. Three days later, when Chari arrived back at school, he was promptly rearrested, detained, and beaten again. When released, he returned to join mass protests at his school. “We decided to continue with the demonstrations until our fellow comrades were released,” he told me.
It was at this time that he was “forcibly abducted” by intelligence officers. He was thrown into a brown Toyota pickup where drunken thugs beat and spit on him, threatening to kill him. He says he lost consciousness for about 30 minutes yet somehow managed to escape just as someone threw a glass bottle at him, scarring his face. He made his way to South Africa in late May and was staying in Johannesburg when I met him in mid-August.
The chances of Chari’s returning to Zimbabwe anytime soon are slim. He told me he was planning on leaving for another African country (which he could not disclose) out of fear for his safety. Zimbabwean agents have been known to infiltrate the exile community (estimated at between 1.5 and 3 million people) in South Africa. “This regime can do anything,” he says.
The people of Zimbabwe could tell countless stories like these three. What’s more, men like the three I met–nonviolent political dissenters subjected to torture–were lucky: They were not killed. With international news coverage heavily slanted toward the Middle East and what little space is given to Africa focused on the continuing genocide in Sudan, the crisis of Zimbabwe has been all but ignored. Yet we should not forget about Robert Mugabe. As Holly Moyo says, “He’s murdered so many people. His hands are so full of blood.”
Photography by Sebastian Rich