The Zimbabwe Mugabe didn't want you to see

While working undercover along the Zimbabwe border, Kiwi photojournalist Robin Hammond was arrested and taken into custody by Robert Mugabe's brutal henchmen. Released last week after 25 days in a lice-infested prison cell, he tells his own story for the first time.

Millions suffer poverty and malnutrition under Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe, while their leaders fly around the world in chartered planes for shopping trips. Photo / Robin Hammond
Millions suffer poverty and malnutrition under Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe, while their leaders fly around the world in chartered planes for shopping trips. Photo / Robin Hammond

Millions suffer poverty and malnutrition under Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe, while their leaders fly around the world in chartered planes for shopping trips. Photo / Robin Hammond

The muggy, impenetrable darkness of the African night offered me little solace as I was pushed into the tiny prison cell. The smell of human sweat was overpowering as I focused on a tangle of limbs on the concrete floor. The heavy door slammed behind me with a violent thud.

As the iron bolt slid into place, the white eyes of three-dozen prisoners stared up at me. Finally, after almost a decade as a photojournalist, I understood their fear.

I was cut off from the world, a helpless prisoner in the bloodied hands of Robert Mugabe's brutal regime. Just how had I found myself in this position? Would I have been smarter to just have shaken Zimbabwe out of my system?

Zimbabwe in 2012 is a largely forgotten corner of the world. Despite the presence of Mugabe as Africa's most suave and enduring bogeyman, international correspondents have long since decamped to Afghanistan and, in more recent times, the Arab Spring struggles for liberty at the other end of the African continent.

Yet, as a journalist, I've never been able to let go of Zimbabwe. It just got under my skin.

I first visited Harare as a photojournalist in 2007. By the end of 2008, after four difficult assignments, the country's economic crisis and the arresting poverty and malnutrition had left me emotionally and physically wrung out. It was a situation without hope. The economy was imploding, impoverishing millions, while the leaders flew around the world in chartered planes for shopping trips.

Hundreds of thousands had already left for South Africa. I even helped some of them escape. I understood exactly why they wanted to leave. I didn't want to be there either.

In 2008, the year when Zimbabwe's opposition party, the MDC, won one election, their supporters were tortured and killed into withdrawing from the run-off. It was the year I covertly photographed a mobile clinic full of semi-conscious cholera victims, as Mugabe denied the disease's existence with a wave of a manicured hand. Children died because hospitals ran out of antibiotics.

I didn't want to return, but Zimbabwe somehow draws you back. In 2009 I was one of the first journalists to enter the Marange diamond fields since the massacres of 2008. There I documented military syndicates mining diamonds in contravention of the Kimberley Process. It was one of the most dangerous journeys of my life.

Evidence gained from the trip was submitted to the United Nations as proof of slavery and violent atrocities being carried out by Mugabe's regime in the relentless pursuit of diamonds.

That report effectively made me an enemy of the state and I withdrew again. But in November last year I was awarded the Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award to document Mugabe's shocking legacy for a book and photographic exhibitions in Europe. I told colleagues in London that this was my big chance to spend serious time in the country.

But with this amazing opportunity also came enormous responsibility and risk: responsibility to the Zimbabwean people whose stories needed to be told, and risk to myself.

To get the story I would have to travel further across and deeper into Zimbabwe than ever before.

In Zimbabwe, as a foreign photographer, there are no easy roads. Over the past five months I covered thousands of kilometres. To embark on the assignment I had first requested permission from the Zimbabwean authorities but, as I anticipated, was given no clearance. I would have to work below the radar.

With the aim of documenting those worst afflicted by Mugabe's tyrannical rule, I worked to a strict regime: early mornings were safest as there were fewer people around. The thugs who would seek to arrest me in the course of my work, would be hung over.

For four months I worked to this format. Dodging the police, the Central Intelligence Organisation and informants. Trying to stay one step ahead of the machine. It was unsafe to return to some locations – once news was out that a white man with a camera had been seen, the security agents would come hunting. This meant time with interviewees was a luxury.

Time is frequently the enemy of photography. Many people think you turn up, take a photograph then leave. It's not that easy. Often the best images come from hours of watching, waiting, moving around your subject hoping the elements will all slide into place in that one instant that communicates the story.

February was when I first ran out of time. I was seen by Mugabe's agents photographing a farm that had been looted by high-ranking politicians including the Governor of the region, Christopher Mushohwe. The farm once employed 5000 locals and exported vegetables to Britain, bringing in a reported US$15 million a year.

Land invasion and the eviction of white farmers made huge headlines around the world, but consider what has been left behind. That has rarely been reported.

In Zimbabwe, where unemployment is now as high as 95 per cent, an employed individual may support as many as 10 extended family members. The loss of 5000 jobs can mean the impoverishment of 50,000 people. There is no government support to fall back on. The result can be devastating. Men enter into illegal and dangerous mining, girls are married off young, mothers forced into prostitution to feed their children. HIV increases, families starve, children stop going to school.

Most of the farm had been covered in tall grass. It was the perfect metaphor for a failed state. It was also a familiar scene in this country, once dubbed "the bread basket of Southern Africa". I went to farms where enormous brick tobacco barns stood with trees growing through the middle. I walked through the skeletal remains of great greenhouses that once grew millions of roses for the florists of London and Paris.

But this farm was also under surveillance. I was exposed because I broke my own rules and made the mistake of photographing the farm in the afternoon. Four plainclothed men and a police officer with an AK47 approached me as I returned to my car. I was arrested.

Thankfully, I was only held overnight but the experience left me shaken. Worse still, I got word from an associate that the police were looking for a white photographer who was seen at Mugabe's birthday the week before. Me. I had no option but to head for the border.

It was a terrifyingly close shave and I counted my blessings while sipping a cold beer in Zambia. But my assignment wasn't finished. I had intended to capture images of Zimbabweans crossing the border into South Africa. So I let the dust settle, then on April 15 I went back in.

I had promised my fiancee, Aude, that this trip would be my last. It would be a quick journey across the border.

Once inside Zimbabwe, guided by a local fixer, I followed a group of border-jumpers into the no man's land that separates Zimbabwe and South Africa, across the Limpopo River. Our goal was to make it to the border fence, but we spotted a South African border patrol and had to make a run for it back to the Zimbabwe side.

On returning to the hotel that morning the police were waiting for me. I now believe the hotel staff had tipped them off. I was taken to Beitbridge police station, the closest to the border with South Africa.

This was no ordinary situation. From the beginning of my arrest, the President's Office (policemen representing the President) were involved, their presence lurking in the background. It became clear that bribery in the early stages was not an option.

I was put through interrogation in a tiny police cell at the station. Their plan was simple: to bully and terrify me into confessing to whatever charge they wanted me to admit. In my case they wanted me to confess to being a journalist, a spy or both.

My interrogator would usually stand, I would be told to sit on the floor. Sometimes he would hold a stick and tap it against his leg.

Sometimes as many as nine interrogators at a time would be shouting, trying to get me to admit that I was lying to them. I felt alone, powerless, at the mercy of my tormentors. They wouldn't let me call a lawyer or my family. One of the officers spat at me: "You will rot in jail."

I saw them beat many of the prisoners. Sometimes it would be a single slap, other times they would punch and kick. One young man was beaten in front of me with a broom stick until it broke on his back. I was lucky enough to escape their violence.

Despite many hours of interrogation, every day for three days, I never admitted to being a photojournalist. I maintained that I had once been a photographer but that now, as stated on my immigration form, I was a teacher.

The police station did not have internet but some of the officers were able to get online on their phones. They had also gone over the border to South African Immigration who, they told me, were able to confirm I was a photojournalist working on human rights issues for British publications.

I was told I was going to court. As I was taken before the judge in chains, I saw the police had printed an article from an internet site detailing my arrest in February that year. The article described me as an award-winning photojournalist.

When I was arrested the first time I also claimed to be a teacher. The article came out after that earlier conviction, based on a press release from a human rights charity.

At the time I complained bitterly to this organisation, telling them they put my work at risk and the life of my fixer who they had named.

I was convicted of taking photos in a protected area. The police saw an image of the Limpopo River with Beit Bridge in the foreground on my camera. I had taken it while walking across the border on my way into Zimbabwe. The judge threw out the charge of breaching the Immigration Act by working, and I pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of taking photos in a protected area.

I was sentenced to a US$150 ($198) fine or a 60-day prison sentence. I, of course, chose to pay the fine.

With wrists and ankles shackled, standing in the dock, I found myself elated. Now I could go home to my fiancee in South Africa and to the new life in Paris we were planning … but instead of releasing me I was taken to Beitbridge Prison.

At the back of the court my fate had already been sealed by others with a sinister interest in my case.

Unknown to me, immigration officials were also in the courtroom and had immediately issued a warrant for my detention pending deportation. They argued that a foreigner committing an illegal act in their country must be sent home.

There is no actual law that requires this, but given that the police did not secure the major conviction they had been aiming for this was the only way they could really punish me.

To compound my punishment, Immigration insisted that I be deported to New Zealand and that I should be sent to Harare for that. "We are in no rush at all," they told my lawyer.

By the time I was taken to my cell, darkness had set in. The cell in which I spent most of my time was a 5m by 10m concrete-walled room. As I was pushed into the cell I saw a sea of limbs squirming in the faded light.

Crammed together like sardines, 38 men were sleeping side by side. Each was unable to even roll over without disturbing the inmate on either side. The smell of stale sweat and urine filled the air.

We were given one blanket, two if we were lucky. Each afternoon, between lock-up and sundown, we would go through our precious blankets killing lice. I would fall asleep each night to a chorus of scratching.

There was one non-flush toilet for the 250 prisoners, but no toilet paper or soap was provided. The guards were often drunk. They beat a few people, but the brutality was nothing like the police beatings. Some were friendly. Some were thugs.

In 2008, prisoners had been starving to death in Beitbridge Prison. This may have been what led the officer in charge to tell us, in one of his grand weekly monologues, that we were "lucky to have food and water".

The food we were handed out was full of weevils. During a visit to the ration room I saw our food was in a bag labelled "animal feed".

My cell was for foreigners, juveniles, and the elderly: the misfits. Cephas, a Nigerian, was imprisoned for not having a visa to visit Zimbabwe. One man had lost his passport so was serving a 30-day sentence. Fourteen-year-old Bright was locked up for border-jumping. Lucky, 15, was arrested with his 81-year-old grandfather for stealing cattle. I felt a strange affinity with my fellow prisoners but I kept many at arms' length, fearing the police might try and use them to get information from me.

I had legal representation from the not-for-profit organisation Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.

Their meeting with Immigration did not go well. They were suspicious of my activities and especially of all the stamps in my passports. Immigration thought I may be a spy and they were looking to transfer me to Harare for further interrogation. I started to panic.

The lawyers left and I started to devise a plan of defence. I would have to continue with the line that I used to be a photographer, hence all the stamps in my passport and all the information online saying I was a photojournalist, but for the past two years I'd been teaching photography, which was why I wrote "teacher" on my immigration form.

My partner, Aude, had designed my photography website. The next day I managed to sneak out a message through a visiting friend telling her what to do. By the following day, my website was describing me as photography teacher offering portfolio reviews and assistance to those who want to "move to the next level in photography" and "reach their image-making goals".

My lawyers had to get back to the capital Harare, 580km to the north. From there they would continue to talk to Immigration and push them to move forward with my deportation. Immigration started blaming the delay in my deportation on the prison service, saying they had transport problems. I took this as a good sign. If the police wanted to investigate me in Harare they could send me up there in a police car.

Prison life was painstaking. I managed to get a magazine into the prison and read it cover to cover. The only other reading material there was the Bible. My magazine quickly did the rounds of those who could read.

I made a schedule to keep fit and occupied. I started a push-up competition in my cell. There wasn't a prize, it was just an ego contest. Soon it spread to other cells. I was invited to compete against others. I walked as much as I could: I worked out that 35 laps of the courtyard was 1km. Everyday I would try and do 5km. It was hard because the place was packed.

Some of the inmates played chess, some draughts. I finally got some books delivered, which kept me sane. There weren't any lights in the cells in Beitbridge. We were locked up at 4pm and it was dark by 6pm. The sun would come up again around 6am. The nights were painfully long.

I would force myself to stay awake as long as I could, but always ended with hours in the morning staring at the barred window high in the eastern wall, waiting for the sky to lighten. Time was measured by meals. Many times I thought my release was just around the corner, only to be locked back in my cell at night. To hope is to torture yourself. I became resigned to a long fight.

After over two weeks in Beitbridge Prison I was transferred to Harare Remand Prison. We were woken at 5am one day and 12 prisoners, with two guards, were shoved in the back of the ute. Each of us was handcuffed to another prisoner. It was tight. The following 10 hours over bumpy roads was sheer torture.

Some people are scared of flying. I'm scared of driving. Not a common phobia but in Africa – in the type of cars, on the roads I travel on, with the drivers I encounter – I don't think it is irrational. If I die on assignment, I'm convinced it won't be by the gun of a child soldier or the bomb of a terrorist, but on an African road when a tyre bursts or brakes fail.

At the back of my mind, though, was dread. For me this journey was either a disaster because it meant I was to be interrogated by the dreaded Central Intelligence Office, or I was one step closer to deportation. I was in the dark.

In the end it took one week. I had a lawyer running between the prison and Immigration making arrangements, and a dear friend running between the supermarket and Harare prison with wonderful food rations: canned peaches have never tasted so good.

On the day of my release, the immigration officials accompanied me to the airport. I went to the toilet and stared wide-eyed at the grey beard I had grown. I looked like my father when we were both a lot younger.

I was still tense all the way to the plane, even when I sat down in my allocated seat after the immigration official had handed my passport over to the airline crew. I was still waiting to be called back. To be interrogated and trapped in a cycle of hope and misery from which I could never escape.

But the plane started rolling forward, faster and faster. I still dared not believe that I would be leaving. But then it happened.

We left the tarmac and a weight around my entire body dropped away with the ground. I started to float. I closed my eyes and raised both my arms in the air. I was free.

Now I sit in Paris, looking out at the busy streets, and I feel nothing but blessed for my experiences travelling the world as a photojournalist.

I feel blessed by the good and bad, the rough and smooth on the road, because it brings everything I have – my liberty, my family, a career I feel passionate about – into perspective.

Little white plasters are attached to each of my forearms. My fiancee is worried about what I brought back with me.

The clothes I wore in prison had to be thrown away. No amount of washing could get rid of the lice eggs. My camera, remarkably, still holds the photos from my river and border crossing. I can't quite bring myself to go through them yet.

I am now banned from ever returning to Zimbabwe. I sit and I think of all the people I've met and all the suffering I've witnessed.

I think of all those I've left behind, detained in the same cells. And I think of all those trapped in a country that has for many become a prison.

A country disposed of choice, of liberty, of hope.

By Robin Hammond

Post published in: News

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