Oliver Matthews says that in the battle for power in the violence-hit country, there's information and there's counter-information.

Zimbabwean soldiers allegedly make residents clean off barricades following recent protests in Sizinda township, Bulawayo, on January 16, 2019. PHOTO | ZINYANGE AUNTONY | AFP

“They were beating her on her breasts.”

Just when you think things can’t get any worse in Zimbabwe, they do.

This weekend: the proof that children were picked up in the blanket round-up that followed last week’s deadly turmoil and those horrendous claims of rape by soldiers.

Sex attacks on a large scale are hard to confirm – and there’s been a fair amount of fighting about the veracity of these ones on Twitter. The police says they’ve only got one confirmed report and the trusted Zimbabwe NGO Human Rights Forum hasn’t yet updated its Thursday night toll of three. Local media was lagging behind the internationals on this one. But on Sunday The Standardnewspaper quoted a counselor saying her organisation had treated more than 14 survivors.

As the outrage and the details of these assaults grow louder, anyone who’s watched Zimbabwe for any length of time can’t ignore that sinking feeling: these cases are going to be true.

Then there’re the children who’ve been caught up in this. The state-run Chronicle revealed on Friday that a six-year-old had been brought to court in Bulawayo on looting charges.

He was part of a group of four other children who will stand trial on 14 February. The oldest was just 13. How long had they been held? What had they seen? And once they’re freed (please let them be freed) who in tottering, wounded Zimbabwe will help these children heal after what they’ve been through?

Just as heart-breaking was the 16-year-old, now released on bail, whose granny was interviewed by Sky News on Friday. Soldiers beat her granddaughter across her breasts.

“It hurts me and I just can’t understand why they would do this,” the grandmother said. It seemed that in speaking to the camera with her face uncovered like that, the grandmother’s hurt was so all-consuming she was actually daring the authorities to come for her.

In this battle for power (since there’s no doubt this is what it is), there’s information and there’s counter-information. It’s all very muddy. Those committing the atrocities are wearing police or soldiers’ uniforms, say rights groups. That’s because they’re criminals who’ve stolen the uniforms, say the authorities.

WhatsApp messages peppered with exclamation marks and signed by the main civil servants APEX union circulate ordering all civil servants to strike on Monday. But then APEX puts out an official statement saying the WhatsApp messages aren’t authorised and there is no strike. Indeed, on Monday morning cars and commuter omnibuses throng the streets of Harare. No strike yet, it seems. But who knows what’ll happen later this week.

One thing’s for sure: the anger’s still there. But so is the sorrow. It’s the bitter impotent sadness of those who thought that after the end of Robert Mugabe’s disastrous rule, the beatings, the rapes and the fear would never happen in Zimbabwe again.

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