Hope Deferred: Life Under Zimbabwe's Cruel Dictator
OCCUPATION: Former police officer and teacher
INTERVIEWED IN: Vancouver, Canada
Zenzele lives in a cramped, government-subsidized studio apartment in a high-rise overlooking downtown Vancouver. He says he doesn’t like living so far above the ground, and that when he finishes school and is working again, he will find his own place, street level, something with a porch, maybe even a yard. A thin man, dressed in running pants and a T-shirt, Zenzele tells his story calmly, lying in his bed, staring at the ceiling. He smiles often. He closes his eyes and sings. But as he begins to talk about the events that led him to flee Zimbabwe, he stands and paces the room. He riffles through a dresser drawer, pulling out hospital records and other evidence, pointing at the pages, reading names and dates and diagnoses. As a teenager and then as a teacher in his native Matabeleland, Zenzele experienced the campaign called Gukurahundi during the 1980s. Joining the police in the late 1980s did not, as he had intended, prevent the government from harassing him. Instead, it launched him on a collision course with the authorities, leading to an appalling case of torture. He has been in Canada for a year and a half, and spends his days in school, his nights studying. When asked about the family he left behind in Zimbabwe, he became silent. He tapped his head with the flat of his hand and stared out the window at the city far below. I don’t like to talk about that, he said.
I’ve got a passport here. It’s called a refugee passport. It says, This guy can travel to all the countries of the world except to Zimbabwe. This is my first passport. I got it one week ago. On the first page it says, This refugee travel document is valid for travel to all countries except to Zimbabwe. I read the news from Zimbabwe every day. I just want to know whether or not it is safe to go back home. As soon as Zimbabwe is free, I’ll try to find an air ticket and then go, because I can’t die here. Of course, I am grateful to Canada for giving me a home as a refugee. But how can you make your life here by yourself? You need to go where there are people you know, where you are free, where you are happy. Here you are always depressed. You come into this room. You stay here the whole day. The food is a strange type of food. This apartment is too high and it’s too lonely.
I miss the wide-open spaces, the bush, the forest. I miss the sounds of barking dogs, and of crowing chickens. I grew up in Bulawayo, in what we called the western suburbs, where only blacks lived. But my childhood was okay – no shortages of food or jobs. When Mugabe came to power, in 1980, things were pretty good. The Zimbabwean dollar was still strong. But he ran down the country, bit by bit. I didn’t like him from the start. One thing is that most people from Bulawayo don’t like Mugabe. I had been taught to be anti-Mugabe. But the other thing is that he was just an impostor. During those first days he said, Reconciliation, reconciliation. The people in Zimbabwe must reconcile. And then he turned on the people. First he turned on the Ndebele people, and then he turned on the white people.
You Must Sing Praises to Robert Mugabe
I finished high school in 1983, and then I started teaching in the rural areas. Soldiers used to make us sing during the night. They called them pungwes. It’s Shona for “an all-night party.” If you didn’t go, they would find you and say, “You must sing praises to Robert Mugabe.” These parties were out in the forest, in the bush, under the trees. There would be a big fire and they’d be holding their rifles and dancing and jumping up and down. And you were expected to dance too. Sometimes I danced because I knew that if I didn’t, they would kill me, these guys.
Even children had to go to these pungwes. After the meeting, the soldiers would take all the girls who were old enough to have sex, and rape them. Some were my students. They would come into the class the next day and fall asleep because they’d been abused the whole night.
No One Was Going To Harass Me
I joined the police in 1987. I was sick of being at the mercy of these so-called security forces. In the police, no one was going to harass me. I spent one year in training, six months at law school studying what is called “law and police,” and then another six months in counterinsurgence, COIN training. The whole time I was a police officer, we lived together in police camps because we were supposed to work as a unit, not on our own.
I worked in Rusape from 1988 to 1998. I met my wife there. Rusape is a big farming area. I was there about the time they were starting the farm takeovers. I knew some of these white farmers, because we used to go to those farms to buy goats or cattle to slaughter for meat in our police camp. Their land was given away to Mugabe’s supporters. They would just tell these farm invaders to go and settle on that land. If the farmer tried to throw them out, they would beat up that farmer or arrest him, or even murder him. Some of these farmers were making reports to us that there were people settling illegally on their farms, but we were told to do nothing about it. It was sad to see these hordes of misinformed Mugabe supporters, cutting down trees, killing wild animals, and generally laying all the land to waste.
In 1998 I left Rusape and went to Bulawayo. Those were the days when a newspaper called the Daily News was still publishing. Members of the police were prohibited from reading that paper. They said, You can’t read this paper, because it speaks badly about Mugabe. They meant that it was anti-government. I used to buy it in the city, hide it in my underpants, tuck my shirt in, and go into my housing camp and read it. After I read it, I would give it to some friends.
Morgan Tsvangirai appeared on the political scene before the constitutional referendum in 2000. Mugabe wanted to turn Zimbabwe into a one-party state, but people said no. The Movement for Democratic Change, the MDC, was newly formed. People said Mugabe lost in that election, and he was very angry. I was working at a place called Binga, a very small town on Lake Kariba, near the border with Zambia. Mugabe sent youth militias called the Green Bombers there because he had lost the election in the Binga constituency. They are called the Green Bombers because of their green uniforms." At every constituency Mugabe lost, a reign of terror, including murders, tortures, and maimings, would follow. The Green Bombers are very destructive. They are young people—some as young as sixteen, seventeen, some are school dropouts—trained to beat up those who are opposed to Zanu-PF during election times.
I Had Never Voted
I started to feel the country was ruined. Things got very expensive and inflation grew. In 2002, there was a vote. In Zimbabwe, on the day of elections, every policeman must vote in his senior officer’s office. They would say, Put your X here, on Zanu-PF. You were forced to vote for Zanu-PF whether you liked it or not. The police, the prison services, the army. Everyone comes in and they tick off all your names, that so and so has voted for the proper party. But on this day, with voting in the senior officer’s office, I said to myself, No, I’m not going to go there.
I had never voted in my life. This was the first and only time I would do it. So on that election day, I said I was sick. And I went out the back door of my house, and through a side gate. I snuck away and went to vote with the civilian population, at a school called Fairbridge Primary School. There were lots of people there. This was the first time for the MDC to be in an election, and everyone wanted to vote. I joined the queue and waited two hours. At the police station, you had to put your X down under the watchful eye of the commander. But at the civilian polling station, you went by yourself into the polling booth and put your X on your ballot paper. When you left, someone else registered your ballot paper so it was anonymous. I voted for the MDC. When I marked that paper, I felt like I was getting my revenge on Mugabe. It felt good.
I decided to quit, but soon after these CIO guys came into my house. I was so angry, I beat them. The following night, I was walking home when four of them of a car and stuffed a piece of cloth into my mouth so I wouldn’t scream. They knew I could fight, so there were plenty of them. They were using sticks, rubber batons, everything. I should have died, they gave me such a very hard beating. Then they took off my trousers and they cut me up. They cut my genitals to pieces. I tried—I tried to fight back. But I lost consciousness.
I don’t know how these guys knew I was still alive, but they came to the hospital and told the doctors not to treat me. The nurses only gave me painkillers. They said they’ve got orders. And when I was in hospital, these guys came back. I was in a big ward full of beds, sort of an emergency ward for people who are very sick. They came to me and said, This time we will finish you off. After two days I discharged myself.
I left for South Africa on December 2004. It took me time to get treatment, because I had never been to South Africa and I didn’t know how to go about things. I was taking life as it came every day. One day I went to the Roman Catholic Church in Orange Farm, and a priest gave me some money and referred me to a place called the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg. When I got there, things started going better. They gave me money and they took me to the hospital. My first surgery cost a lot of money—R32,000,10 South African currency. Some people teamed up and paid for it. The doctor who saw me was horrified. Then he said he was going to do reconstructive surgery. He told me, “Of course, you will never be the same again.”
In late 2005, I registered for asylum with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. I left South Africa in 2008. In between, I worked for a short time in hospitals in South Africa, counseling people who are HIV-positive. I’ve had two surgeries since I came to Canada. It functions normally now. It doesn’t hurt anymore. But the sadness never goes away.
What makes me sad is that people in Zimbabwe have come to think that suffering is normal. Those who were kids in the ’80s have known of no other life other than poverty, disease, hunger, death, and misery. In Zimbabwe children never enjoy their childhood. They are busy going hungry, foraging for food, and learning the tricks of survival.
Mugabe is very old now, and when he dies his party will disintegrate or start fighting among themselves. Even the army and the police will desert Zanu-PF—they will quit, or they will actively support another leader. And when Mugabe finally goes, it will be a lesson for all members of all security branches of the country never to become partisan. Right now, they can’t resign because of fear. They are riding a tiger. When they try to get off, the tiger will eat them. The riders are Mugabe and his henchmen. The tiger is the long-suffering people of Zimbabwe. You cannot hold a nation in bondage for such a long time.