by Constance Manika
– Zimbabwe –
As I write this piece, a soldier is in critical condition at the army hospital after residents from the notorious suburb, Mufakose attacked him and three of his colleagues for “harassing innocent civilians”. It’s another manifestation of what everyone in this country knows: Robert Mugabe has for all intents and purposes succeeded in turning the Zimbabwean army and police against their own people. Effectively, the police and the military have become extensions of his arms.
Instead of serving and protecting civilians, these two state entities are now Mugabe’s machinery. Under justification of the Public Order and Security Act, the army and the police now routinely disrupt opposition at political gatherings, meetings and rallies. They beat everyone in attendance.
The police and army attack women and children who sell their wares to earn a living. Confiscating their goods, they charge that the women are conducting businesses in “undesignated” locations, yet the government destroyed these “legal” vending areas during Operation Murambatsvina! (To find out more, read Constance’s article on Operation Murambatsvina)
The police and army have been known to disrupt demonstrations and protests – they are not ashamed to even beat up women with children on their backs. The unlucky ones arrested at these demonstrations are denied food and water, medical care and access to legal representation. When human rights lawyers seek their release, they are either chased away from the police stations or threatened with arrest themselves.
But, as usual, when one of their own is “attacked”, civilians pay the price. A few days after this soldier’s hospitalization, three army trucks descended one evening on Mufakose: armed soldiers jumped out, and began beating everyone in sight.
Within a few minutes the local shopping center, Samuriwo, was empty. No civilians were left in sight; everyone had rushed home and locked their doors: good citizens cursed the government while nursing their wounds.
I had just gotten off a commuter omnibus (kombi) when I witnessed this commotion. When the driver of the kombi realized what was happening, he quickly called me back onboard and we sped away, back to the city center. I thank him for saving me from walking into the crossfire.
That night I sought refuge at a friend’s house. She works for a United Nations agency and stays on the “other side of town” – a quieter, less populated area in Harare with big, well built, “up-market” houses.
Diplomats stay in these areas because they can afford to. Rarely do the army and police “descend” on these areas for obvious political reasons. We are told that the army and police are under strict orders not to cause commotions in these areas. Undoubtedly the reason they are protected is that the diplomatic community has quicker access to the outside world. If they witness these kinds of human rights abuses, much less experienced them, they would surely trigger an immediate international outcry. Mugabe wants to hide all these abuses from his Southern Africa Development Community friends.
So that night, though I spent my time in more comfortable and luxurious surroundings, I had no peace. My friend began her usual ” I told you so” diatribe, saying once again that I must move out of my neighborhood because “one of these days” I was going to get hurt. I stopped listening. I have heard this argument so often that it does not make sense to me anymore.
My mother, my former classmates, my workmates and many of my friends always give me this same lecture. I have my reasons, however, for staying on in my own “notorious” suburb.
There are two reasons why I continue to live where I do. First, I can’t afford to stay on “the other side of town”, but even if I could, I still wouldn‘t. Second, I refuse to live in a fantasy world where it is “safe” and I can pretend that things are normal, when in actuality they are not. I stay on to see for myself what happens every other day so that one day when this storm passes, I will be able to tell the “real” story as an eyewitness.
I do not want to one day tell people that there was hunger in Zimbabwe during Mugabe’s era never having slept on a hungry stomach. Nor do I want to tell people of the police brutality and violence in Zimbabwe without having seen or experienced it myself. I may be a coward in other ways, but not to the extent that I am willing to live in a “make believe” land, far from the madness.
As desperation spreads across the country, citizens take matters into their own hands
On August 18th, ten women from Highfield, one of Harare’s “notorious” suburbs marched to the local municipal clinic with their babies strapped to their backs demanding that the authorities provide treatment for their sick children.
Known for their fierce opposition to anything that violates their rights, the people of Highfield always take to the streets in protest to register their disgruntlement. Hardly a week goes by in this suburb without some sort of clash between the residents and the authorities, be they police, army or municipal officers.
Before marching, these same ten women had already visited this same clinic; on several occasions they were were told by the nurses on duty that there was no medication to treat their babies for diarrhea. Most of the mothers were sent home with Panadol syrup for pain, but they received no antibiotics that would kill the actual infection causing the diarrhea.
For some time now in Highfield and many other Harare suburbs, cracked and leaking water and sewer tanks have simply burst and been left unrepaired. Because of the sewage in the streets, incidences of diarrhea-related diseases are springing up across the city and continue unabated.
There is at least one burst sewer pipe on almost every street in Highfield, exposing everyone to disease. But those most affected are the children who play outdoors during the day, oblivious to the dangers poised by the untreated sewage all around them.
The local authority is strapped for cash; it doesn’t have the chemicals needed to treat the open sewers nor does it even have enough fuel to get to the locations of burst pipes! Resident’s repeated calls to have the pipes repaired are simply ignored.
Virtually everything that the Robert Mugabe led government touches is collapsing, has collapsed or is in the process of collapsing! Repairing burst sewer pipes and ensuring that clean tap water is available in Highfield (along with many other Harare residential areas) is the sole responsibility of the government controlled Zimbabwe National Water Supply Authority (ZINWA) which is part of the Ministry of Water and Infrastructural Development.
Stung that their children were denied treatment at the local clinic because of ZINWA’s incompetence, these women resolved to take it upon themselves and confront authorities. Even though the sister in charge threatened to set the notorious riot police on them, they refused to leave the clinic premises until their children had been treated. But the women were unmoved by the threats. Finally the sister in charge promised she would complete an emergency application for medical supplies from their headquarters in light of the major outbreak of disease. Only then did the women leave the clinic, vowing to return the next day.
That same day, in Dzivarasekwa, another Harare suburb, residents stormed the local ZINWA offices demanding that the local district office urgently attend to the burst sewer pipes. There were so many that it had become a crisis that had gone unattended for nearly two weeks. This residential suburb has had chronic problems with burst sewer pipes for ages and just like Highfield, requests for assistance from ZINWA has always fallen on deaf ears. Although Dzivarasekwa is generally known as a “peace loving” community, a crowd of about 70 residents led by the Combined Harare Residents Association felt justified in demanding action.
The residents left ZINWA with one serious threat: if these problems continued unattended for the next two days, the crowd would come back and dump raw sewage inside the ZINWA offices! The residents also left a petition for the Minister of Water Resources and Infrastructural Development, demanding that the government immediately attend to their problems. Failing a solution, they would “invade” his city offices and again dump the uncollected rubbish and raw sewage from their community.
The Dzivarasekwa and Highfield protests were not the only protests to hit Harare last month. Armed policemen also beat up Mabvuku and Tafara residents who protested ZINWA’s incompetence on August 20, 2007.
These are just a few examples of the unrest that is spreading across the country as Zimbabweans get increasingly frustrated and angry with a system that went wrong long ago. Contrary to what our neighbors (Tswanas, South African, Zambians, Malawians and Mozambicans) say about how we are a docile lot, not a week goes by without multiple incidents such as these here in Zimbabwe.
According to the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP) at least 4,122 incidents of human rights violations have been recorded since the beginning of 2007, the bulk of them politically motivated.
Of the cases recorded by ZPP between January and June, seven were murders, 18 were rapes, 34 were denials of food aid, 69 were abductions or kidnappings, and 459 were cases of torture. There were also 2,323 cases of harassment or intimidation; 1,141 cases of assault; 152 cases of unlawful detention and one case of a politically motivated suicide.
There is still reason to hope
I have great admiration and respect for people who stand up and fight for their rights. I have respect for the women in Highfield who strapped their babies to their backs and marched to the city council clinic. For those in Mabvuku and Tafara who were beaten by police for standing up to demand what is theirs, I have respect. I respect the people of Dzivarasekwa for finally deciding that enough is enough.
These people are taxpayers; they should demand these basic services from their government.
While these struggles may be small, doesn’t everything start that way? Mugabe had better watch out: Zimbabwe’s men and women are more than disgruntled – and I take hope from this, because the people of Zimbabwe still have the spirit to see things change.
About the Author
Constance Manika is a journalist who works for the independent press in Zimbabwe. She writes under this pseudonym to escape prosecution from a government whose onslaught and level of intolerance to journalists in the independent press is well documented.
In Meltdown in Zimbabwe, an exclusive and ongoing series at The WIP, Constance provides continued on-the-ground reporting from her embattled country where Zimbabweans struggle daily for democracy, economic sustainability and human rights.