A photographer’s nightmare

The grueling experience of an American photographer who spent four nights in jail, suffered abuse at the hands of immigration and police officials and was finally deported.

Photographer Paul Sively wanted to highlight the strength of  Zimbabwean women.
Photographer Paul Sively wanted to highlight the strength of Zimbabwean women.

Unfair arrest, illegal detention, the denial of medication and other basic rights and finally deportation – this was American photographer Paul Sively’s Zimbabwean experience.

Alongside his role as vice-chair of social empowerment organisation in Mutare, Sively is also involved in a self-initiated project to create a photographic story about inspirational women in the Manicaland and Harare provinces, who could serve as role models for younger women.

With a passion for photography, he specialises in portraits, architectural and travel/editorial imagery. The initiative came after his first visit to Zimbabwe in 2009 to meet with non-governmental organisations.

Inspired by Lucy

“I met Lucy, a farmer outside of Chimanimani who was running a farm, raising a very large extended family of orphans and doing so with little expectation of glory or attention,” Sively told The

Zimbabwean earlier this week.

“She struck me as an example of many Zimbabweans who toil endlessly in the shadows. I felt that highlighting her efforts could inspire others. She was just the example of many women I met via NGOs or contacts in the country. They ranged from teachers of the deaf to women running microfinance programmes to government officials and more.”

Sively arrived in Zimbabwe on August 8 this year, hoping to continue with his project, but what should have been a journey to chronicle, celebrate and inspire, quickly turned into a nightmare.

Having interviewed women on August 9, which was preceded by two national holidays, he decided to visit the National Heroes Acre on August 13.

“On August 13, at the Heroes Acre celebration, I was detained by plain clothes CIO officers immediately after the President finished his speech. Along with me were three other individuals who were also detained. One of them was an accredited journalist, Paida Muzulu, and my driver, William Chatigu. and the third was named Ashford, who is a Crowne Plaza employee,” he narrated.

Police abuse

Over the following three days he was subjected to 7-15 hour interrogations by various officers, including Commissioner Augustine Chihuri, spent four nights in prison cells and was threatened with beatings by notorious police torturer, Henry Dowa of the CID Law and Order. Sively was not only denied food and water, but he was refused his heart medicine. Besides the physical abuse, he had goods worth $15-20, 000 confiscated by the police and was not given a copy of the inventory.

“At no time over the three days were we offered any breaks, water or food. I was never told the name of any police officers. I was never advised where we were going when we were in transit, with the exception of when two officers went with me to search my room,” he said.

“It was clear during the long interrogation that the officers were hunting for some charge they might be able to make stick – be it alleging I was a journalist, that I should have had a business visa, not a tourist visa, and various other lines of inquiry.

“I was subjected to questions ranging from my marital status, my religion, who I was working for, why I had picked women to focus on, and much more. Officers ridiculed my mention of a female farmer as the inspiration for this project, questioned why I had ‘a woman who did absolutely nothing of importance’. At about midnight on August 15, I was charged with the business/tourist visa matter.”

Denied medication

He was tossed from one detention centre to another and later to remand prison.

“For two hours prior to the charge being filed, I had been having chest pains, a fact that caused me great concern since I had had a heart attack in 1998 and a second angioplasty in 2003,” he said. “When I asked to be taken by CID to my lodgings to get heart medicine, they denied that request and said that my driver could retrieve them. I explained that he would have great difficulty in finding them all, which proved to be quite true. In fact, it was hours after my request that I first received nitrolingual – a prescription critical for my survival.

“At Rhodesville station, I was told that I would be placed in a cell where I ‘wouldn’t be exposed to anything’. In fact, one cell remained empty and I was placed in a cell with three young men. This cell was rank with the smell of urine, to the extent that my clothes soon stank of urine. We slept on wool blankets on the concrete floor. I spent the night there and was visited by the US Embassy and my attorney, Beatrice Mthethwa.

“During the four days of prison time, I was specifically denied a pen and paper, prohibiting me from taking any notes on my experience or organising my thoughts on my case or on what critical items I needed my driver to bring.”

His case moved from police to the Immigration Department. He was taken from Rhodesville back to CID at the Harare Central Prison and later to a remand prison.

“I was extremely concerned for my personal safety given that I was a white American – not the most popular classification in Zimbabwe.”

TB concerns

He spent one of the nights in a holding cell with 40 inmates.

“Most of the prisoners in the holding cell were smoking on wool blankets for bedding on the concrete floor. Should that wool have caught fire from cigarette ash, there would have been no escape,” added Sively.

“Throughout that night, one of the prisoners, four men away from me, was coughing, potentially from TB. I was told by one inmate that there was TB in the prison.”

When the time came for the prisoners to talk to a nurse on their chronic illnesses, there was no privacy, with guards and inmates being within five feet of the nurse.

“During my stay at remand, I met numerous individuals incarcerated on immigration matters who had overstayed their visa or lost their passport. Some had had hearings and no money to leave Zimbabwe. Others had been waiting for months for a hearing. They had been there for five months and more for these immigration issues. The lack of justice or reliable information about procedures is something I will never, ever forget.

“I think daily about the men who are likely sitting in remand because they have yet to have a hearing or lack of finances to fly out of the country (which is the transportation method the government requires).

The ones left behind

“On my second night in remand, I caught lice from the wool blankets and ringworm from the showers, as verified by doctors in the US on my return. On August 18, at about 9am, I was escorted out of the cell to two waiting immigrations officer who, after some delay, said I had been cleared of the visa charge, but that my visa had been cancelled and they were taking me to the airport immediately.”

He was booked on the next flight, for which he paid $870, but could not go because the flight was gone, meaning he had to be detained once more at the Airport police station.

“I stayed on the concrete floor with my head one foot from a concrete toilet and my feet at a drafty door,” he said. “One of the key observations I made was that there was absolutely no communication between CID, immigration or prison officials.

“Clearly, there are prisoners who merit different treatment after being convicted of serious crimes, but I was housed with non-convicted prisoners, many accused of minor crimes, who enjoyed no rights, procedures, information or basic health standards. I noticed that the absence of rules or procedures was even worse and more arbitrary in police cells than at remand.”

Sively wants to alert the two Home Affairs Ministers about his ordeal. His equipment has been released, but the cost to ship it to America is substantial.

The photographer’s worthy mission to highlight the accomplishments of Zimbabwean women came at a high price and is an experience that he will not soon forget.

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