Station. My crime? My cameraman and I had been caught filming people queuing for sugar in downtown Harare, capital of beleaguered Zimbabwe.
We were bundled into a car and taken in for questioning. I tried to defend myself by arguing: ‘There are so many food queues in Zimbabwe these days that it is difficult not to film them.’ But the police weren’t having it. They wanted our pictures. Queues are simply everywhere — for flour, mealie meal, sugar, mobile phone cards, petrol (two miles long outside some petrol stations) and bank hole-in-the-wall machines. Since a Z$1,000 note is so devalued that it is currently worth less than 1p, people have to line up at cashpoint machines several times a day to accumulate the $85,000 necessary to buy a loaf of bread. But as far as the authorities are concerned, food queues do not exist and so pictures of them cannot be published in ‘rubbish reports’ sent abroad. I was among a handful of journalists the government allowed into the country to report on Mugabe’s latest pretence at democratic rule — the election last month for a new upper house of parliament. As a public relations exercise, the decision to allow a foreign TV film crew into the country backfired badly.
Fed up with phoney, rigged elections (this is the second this year), the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), called for a boycott and, as a result, fewer than 15 per cent of voters turned out — the lowest number for a national election since independence in 1980. On polling day we could hardly fail to notice that the queues for the cashpoints were longer than those at polling stations. Zimbabwe today has become one large, stinking, starving prison. Uncollected rubbish, beggars, hunger and fear now stalk the land that was once the bread basket of southern Africa. Robert Mugabe’s violent and crazy 25-year rule has reduced what was one of the most affluent countries in the continent to one of the poorest and, for those who dare oppose the government, it is now the most fearful. Any untoward behaviour in Zimbabwe is noted by the members of Mugabe’s Central Intelligence Office (CIO) who patrol every street and infiltrate every meeting. Telling such a story to a journalist would earn you another beating and a prison sentence. Not surprisingly, there is much more that the government of Zimbabwe wants to keep hidden. On the outskirts of Harare and Bulawayo, you see vast areas of wasteland that have been recently cleared. Look closely, and you might see a child’s shoe or the remains of a smashed radio. This is where Operation ‘Restore Order’ (or ‘Clean Up Filth’, depending on the translation) has taken place. The plan is to remove thousands of ‘politically incorrect’ slum dwellers and to destroy their livelihoods. I found a man called Joseph sleeping in a garden shed, half a mile or so from his destroyed home. We had arranged a meeting just before dawn, when the Harare sky was still grey and before the men from the Central Intelligence Office started their rounds. The shed, built to accommodate garden tools, just about covered the length of his long, thin body. It was little more than a metre high. With difficulty, he eased his body out of its coffin-like space and told us his story: ‘We lived a good life — my wife and family — we had two rooms. But then the MDC won lots of votes round here in the general election and so the government got vicious. Two days after the vote, police officers and soldiers came and told people to destroy their own houses. If we refused, they beat us and put guns at our head.’ Within hours Joseph’s house was dismantled and bulldozers finished the job. His wife was pregnant and the shock led to her giving birth on the streets. Tragically, their newborn daughter lived only two weeks. Understandably, Joseph has sent his wife and their two remaining children back to his village. He hopes to start his confectionery business again and eventually bring them back. But it is unlikely. Even the flower sellers at the graveyard where he buried his daughter cower in ditches at the approach of a car. They say that if the police see them, they snatch the flowers and trample them into the dirt. Thousands of other survivors of Operation ‘Restore Order’ have been dumped in isolated villages where the locals can barely feed themselves, let alone cope with the new influx. Others have been put in ‘resettlement camps’ that are little more than open prisons. When we walked up to the gates of one camp, we were met by police who told us it was a ‘restricted area’. Our formal request to film was turned down with fury by a man from the Ministry of Information. Like food queues, displaced people just do not exist in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. But brave locals who have gone into the camps with cameras to record the evidence have proved otherwise. It is now the rainy season and families are having to live in makeshift shelters constructed out of black plastic and brushwood. With no clean water and no food supplies, people have to forage for food like animals. One woman shows a handful of insects in her hand. She says: ‘Look. This is what we are eating now. There is hunger and starvation. We cannot survive.’ With people stretched to the end of their endurance, the government is taking drastic action to prevent civil disorder. But is an uprising possible? On a practical level, there is not even enough fuel for buses to take people to a demonstration or uprising, should one ever be called. According to a major in the Zimbabwean army, even soldiers are hungry and dispirited. But he rules out any chance of a coup d’etat. He says: ‘Members of the Central Intelligence Office have infiltrated the army rank and file. A conspiracy would be impossible.’ The truth is that a people so enfeebled by hunger and fear are simply unable to rise up. Amid a host of desperate images, my abiding, haunting memory of Zimbabwe will forever be the children’s ward at the mission hospital outside Bulawayo. It is filled with mothers and malnourished children with their thin arms, huge eyes set in sunken cheeks and distended bellies. Some women succeed in putting small spoonfuls of mealie meal in unresponsive mouths. Others just look on as their listless children lie inert, as if tragically accepting their fate. One mother stumbles into the ward carrying a tiny bundle in her arms. She has walked and hitched lifts for 200 miles to get here, the only functioning hospital in a vast area of the country. The woman doctor gently lifts her three-year-old boy onto a cot. His face is wizened, his ribs protrude. He does not move. ‘What have you been feeding him?’ the doctor asks, almost accusingly. The mother mumbles the name of a local root vegetable and adds: ‘It’s all we have.’ The doctor replies: ‘But your son needs protein, eggs, milk.’ The mother looks at her, uncomprehending. Next, the doctor mumbles to herself: ‘What’s the point? There is no hope for this country.’ A few hours later, the little boy dies. By comparison, my little inconvenience at Harare police station pales into insignificance. But it is satisfying to punch a small hole in the fabric of this murderous regime. Hunger and food queues do not exist, according to the authorities who were determined to confiscate my tapes so that I could not prove otherwise. They strip-searched me but I managed to get away with our film. I am not the first to report on the hell that exists in Zimbabwe today. The world knows what is going on there. But even so, many Zimbabweans demanded of me: ‘Why does the outside world not do more to help us get rid of this murderer Robert Mugabe?’ – First published in The Daily Mail – 12/12/2005Post published in: News