The Fragile Lives and the Dictator

Eugene Soros, contributing editor, Harare, Zimbabwe, September 16, 2004

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in Harare on August 6, 2004. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

The Zimbabwean National army moved into the sprawling town of Chitungwiza at dusk. Heavily armored vehicles and soldiers with automatic rifles lumbered through the streets. As they passed through Mavis Chirombe’s homestead, a child called out: “Soldiers are coming!” The cry was met with silence from the 50-year-old grandmother.

For some Zimbabweans, the coming of the soldiers means a diminished ability to be really happy. For others, it brings recurring nightmares with images of torture lurking in their minds again and again. For everyone involved, the experience greatly reduces one’s faith in humanity and raises serious moral questions.

In the days that followed the mass protests and stay-aways of last June, bitter memories of previous protests shot up into Mavis Chirombe’s life.

“I fought death 20 years ago,” said Chirombe. “I am still trying to and I still need some pills to put me to sleep. I lost a son in 1982. He was beaten to death. The reason being that we then were supporters of Zimbabwe African People’s Union [the late Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu-PF, the strongest opposition party in 1980 to President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF] of which we were members and weapons of war had been found on its farms.”

Soon she breaks down, and every word is told in tears.

“I do not think things will be the same again,” she says with much disdain.

Mugabe’s rule has become perilous for women, who are frequently raped, forced into marriage because of food shortages and economic hardships, or subjected to degrading and inhuman treatment. A case in point was when soldiers ordered unknown couples to engage in sexual intercourse at a public nightclub in one of Chitungwiza’s shopping centers.

Barbara, who says we cannot use her full name, recounted an incident when soldiers were ordered to search her: “They literally touched every part of my body. I felt like screaming, but I was afraid of being beaten-up. I wonder if the armed forces have any women members these days.”

Julia Muskwe, 39, was forcibly stripped of her shirt at gunpoint before sympathizers jumped to her rescue and questioned why the soldiers were undressing her. Julia now hardly moves away from her home in unit G Chitungwiza.

Mavis Tapera’s (UMP District) assailants ordered her out of her house at night and used a knife to cut off her petticoat, leaving her clad in only her underwear. Her assailants brutally assaulted her sexually, and ordered her to imitate demeaning sexual maneuvers. Later, her assailants returned her to her home.

Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, a local Member of Parliament (MP) and gender activist said violence over the past two years and the economic situation have left many women vulnerable and homebound: “Even in parliament we have now stopped raising gender issues until we have addressed the issue of bread and butter and the people’s security.”

Amani Trust, a local non-governmental organisation that assists survivors of political violence, revealed that more than a thousand people have sought shelter with them since 2000. A majority of these victims of violence and displacement were women.

“Research shows that women are the easiest targets of political violence, but because of their resilience most women remain indoors and rarely report the matters to the police,” said Amani Trust Advocacy Officer Joseph Nherera. In rural areas most women who speak to journalists are consciously risking their lives. “Mwanangu! Tinosara thichiona ndondo (we will see fire when you are gone).”

Since coming to power in 1980, Mugabe has made it clear that people who do not subscribe to his ideologies and party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), will be persecuted in one way or another.

In 1982, under the guise of a clamp down on rebels, Mugabe sent in a special army brigade trained by the North Koreans. But its real purpose was to deal with the Ndebele opposition Zimbabwe African People’s Union-Patriotic Front (Zapu-PF). The brigade’s activities were secret but 20 years later, human rights investigators reported that more than 20,000 Ndebeles had been slaughtered — some raped, many shot and bayoneted in random public executions.

Although some of the victims of Mugabe’s whims have fought their cases in court and won, they still live in constant fear and apprehension.

“The fact that Mugabe is still at the helm of things in Zimbabwe does not help matters,” said Dareni Tomu, an opposition activist and Muskwe’s friend. “His thugs are still immune from the full wrath of the law.”

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