Philip Barclay and Grace Mutandwa

British Embassy Harare

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Friday 18 July, 2008

Legacy and Long-legged Birds

Sorry there have been no posts recently from me, I’m just back from the most welcome holiday of my life.

My previous blogs have reflected Zimbabwe’s plunge from hope in March to despair and fear today. The feeling on Harare’s streets is that – yet again – the people have been denied the leader they voted for and that – yet again – the world doesn’t care. Some countries’ choice to prevent the UN Security Council from taking action last week has convinced Zimbabweans that they are on their own, facing a lethal and cruel Government with no interests beyond clinging onto power.

Despair and fear infects us working at the British Embassy too. Living through such a period is taking chunks out of us. In June we held our annual reception to celebrate the Queen’s Birthday, and give some aid and comfort to our community and friends here. Some of the guests could not attend, as they were being held as political prisoners. Others have been savagely beaten since the party. It hurts to see such cruelty close up.

Every day we see the latest victims of torture and murder – sometimes photos, sometimes face-to-face. The latest man to die horribly is a driver called Gift Mutsvungunu, whose ‘crime’ was to move the furniture of a previous murder victim. Gift was abducted. His eyes were gouged out and he was burned. Only then was he killed. His torture was sub-human. It’s only motive was the sadistic fury of ZANU-PF’s revenge on the MDC for its 29 March election victory. It is shredding us inside to see such horrors, particularly when all we can do is document what we see and hope for eventual justice. 

And we feel that our little bubble of diplomatic safety is contracting. The state-sponsored papers are loaded with hatred every day. We are accused of causing the crisis, of ordering the MDC to commit murder, of racism. When we venture out of the Embassy, we are treated as suspicious people. We are questioned and sometimes even threatened. We feel reasonably confident that the police will do us no harm. But we see ZANU-PF militias on the streets – young thugs pumped up with alcohol and drugs and indoctrinated to believe that whites are the enemy. How stable are these people?

There are rewards of course – like reading that the Prime Minister used the very latest – and particularly shocking – information, supplied by ourselves, to argue for action at the G8 summit. But real results are scarce, and after a few months of Zimbabwe in a tail-spin, we all need a break to stop our heads dropping. For me that meant a couple of weeks of safari and beach in Tanzania.

One of many sad thoughts I had about Zimbabwe while on holiday is that it can be misused as a piece of evidence to confirm the racist and incorrect prejudice some still hold that black Africans cannot govern themselves, without dictatorship, genocide, starvation or economic collapse. At the time of the Gleneagles’ summit in 2005, ‘the year of Africa’, when we were full of hope for the continent’s future, figures like Idi Amin belonged to another century. Now we have Zimbabwe, a Uganda for the 21st century. The cynicism about Africa that Zimbabwe is generating is just another piece of ZANU-PF’s rich legacy to the world. 

If I was having any doubts, Tanzania showed me that the stereotype of the corrupt African is not just unfortunate,  but also untrue. I met diverse people who didn’t agree about everything, but managed to disagree without killing each other. People were united in the desire to create a more happy and prosperous country. The economy is doing well, people speak without fear and I saw plenty of evidence of the tolerant government that Zimbabwe lacks.

While I was in Tanzania, its Human Rights’ Commission published details of violations in the last year and urged the Government to address the problem. The newspapers discussed a recent building collapse and criticised the Government for not regulating construction. Continuing tensions between the mainland and the Zanzibar archipelago were openly reported and discussed. I’m not an expert on Tanzania, but it looks like a great country, honest about its problems and trying to do better. I hope the UK looks as open, friendly and tolerant to foreign visitors.

And in case you think I spent all my time reading newspapers, let me tell you that I sat in the Serengeti watching lions gnawing wildebeest, pondered whether that bright-eyed, long-legged bird at Ngorongoro was the black-winged or Senegalese variety of plover; and relaxed on the beach, letting the Indian Ocean splash over my toes. All washed down with crates of ‘Kilimanjaro’ beer to keep my belly in shape – heaven!     

Please keep Zimbabwe in your thoughts, as its terribly put-upon people consider their options at the start of another five-year Presidency. Zimbabweans showed enormous courage on 29 March, but others have not matched that courage and the future is now grim.

And please also don’t give up on Africa, most of which is peaceful and beautiful.  And if you’re looking for a holiday – try Tanzania!

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Posted by Francis J.L. Osborn on July 19, 2008 at 11:54 PM BST #

How depressingly long term this is all sounding now. I hope the outside world doesn't just lose interest and give up on Zimbabwe. I'm glad you're still blogging and that you've had what I'm sure was a much-needed break from it all - it's important to keep on hearing about the reality of the situation following the 'election' fiasco.

Posted by Paula R on July 21, 2008 at 12:37 PM BST #

To see if from an insiders perspective is truly rare - something that in the UK is under reported and so far away from our own every day normal lives. This opened my eyes... Im glad you were able to find a means of temporary escape - your dedication in a world so different from my own is both amazing and sadnening.

Posted by Talitha Burnett on July 21, 2008 at 05:11 PM BST #

Powerful stuff indeed. It gets more alarming despite efforts being made across the border in South Africa. What a contrast with countries such as Tanzania. We are proud of your continuing efforts to tell it as it is. We fear for the safety of you and your colleagues facing daily life in Harare and we keep you in our thoughts and prayers. Peter R

Posted by Peter Robinson on July 22, 2008 at 04:29 PM BST #

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