No jokes in this piece, sadly. It’s just too grim.
I am making yet another election monitoring trip in Masvingo this week, along with our Human Rights Officer. It’s the eighth trip the British Embassy has made to the province since February in an effort to know first-hand what is going on. People are starting to recognise us.
The call comes through while we are in Bikita, watching a group of officials and stony-eyed youths in ZANU-PF regalia giving maize meal to party supporters. The Government has annihilated agriculture and has now forbidden UN agencies and NGOs from distributing food. So unless you promise ZANU-PF that you’re going to vote for Robert Mugabe on 27 June, you starve.
The call says that there has been a bomb attack in Zaka and that people are dead. We aren’t planning to go to Zaka, but it’s only 20 miles away, 15 minutes the way Elvis drives, so we go.
First stop the police station. A smooth plod denies any knowledge of a fatal attack in Zaka. He’s really good and we actually believe him. But I should have smelled a rat when he showed no interest in investigating my report, but lots of interest in who had called me with the tip-off.
On to the MDC office where we’ve been told the bombing took place. I have to get Elvis to pull over so I can admire the view behind a tree and, as we are parked, a police Landover, going fast, overtakes us. By the time we reach the MDC office, two policemen are standing some distance from it, instructing us to leave the area.
I must admit I lose my temper a little. I ask the more senior policeman why he is obstructing international observers going about their proper business. I ask him if he had arrested anyone for murder. I ask him if he, in fact, knows exactly who has done this.
The policeman says he had orders to obey. I ask him if he’s heard of the international tribunals where war criminals are put on trial, and the Nuremberg defence. I do appreciate that all this is going too far, but honestly, the indifference of this man to every aspect of a horrifying mass murder, other than covering it up, is too much to tolerate.
While our unsatisfactory conversation is going on, we manage to get reasonably close to the MDC office. It is entirely burned out. Elvis pulls the car up beside me and says sharply, “it is time to go NOW, this man is losing control”.
As we shoot off, another call. A man injured in the attack has been taken to a hospital in Masvingo. We zoom over there, Elvis-fast, and find the man - bandaged hands and feet and burned hair. His story of what happened is horrible.
Six MDC officials, sleeping in their office, were woken by the arrival of an armed gang at 4am. The armed men forced the officials to lie down and shot three people immediately. (I pray to any available God that they were killed outright). Petrol was poured over them all and they were set alight. The man I am talking to managed to tear off his clothes, beat out the flames burning his body and escape. Two men are dead, their bodies unrecognisably burned, and another suspected dead but his body is missing. Two men have burns over large areas of their bodies. They will be lucky to live.
If you are one of the few people in this world who believe there is not a ghastly crisis in Zimbabwe; if you believe the brazen official lies that the MDC is responsible for the violence; or if you believe that a fair election is possible when opposition party workers are being burned alive, I urge you to reflect on what you have just read, and think again
Easter Friday in Zimbabwe. It’s hot enough for flabby Englishmen like me to break sweat. Elvis the driver (seriously, that’s his name) is hammering around the uranium mountains and malarial valleys of Masvingo. We’re monitoring how ready Zimbabwe is for elections on 29 March.
We scream past a donkey plodding along the road, stoic under its sack of soya beans. Zim’s a country of worshippers and many today will be thinking of a particular Palestinian donkey carrying a man to his death. For the early Christians it was a knife-edge moment between palm-waving hope one day and injustice and despair the next. It’s a neat metaphor for Zimbabwe this week. People are visualising a better future, but don’t know if they’ll ever see it. And all that hope will make the despair all the deeper if Zimbabwe carries on down the road to Golgotha after 29 March.
For now it’s wonderful to see a country where people are engaged and alive. We pass an election rally in a field four miles from nowhere. Once Elvis has found the brake pedal, I get out to have a good look. 200 people seated in a neat circle. No police. No coercion. No youth militias. Just people voluntarily meeting to talk politics. The programme is varied – first some humorous chants about the state of the nation. Then some singing: "the fist which liberated us is now a hammer destroying the nation". The words sound grim in English translation, but there must be some extra spice in the Shona, because everyone’s in stitches. Members of the audience spontaneously spring up into the space inside the ring to offer a few words, an amusing variant on a chant, or some nifty dance steps. Their contributions are greeted with a deep ululation that sets the heart racing.
It occurs to me that the space inside the circle is the embodiment of one of those banal pieces of jargon diplomats like. It is a democratic space. And people are enjoying using it for the first time in a long time.
Then the candidate, a small serious man in his forties, gets up to speak. His delivery is reminiscent of the ‘I have a dream speech’: slow sentences, long pauses populated with moans of appreciation from the crowd, building to a cresceno: the country is hungry and dependent on food from Malawi (the crowd laughs, Zimbabwean farmers used to feed Malawians with their surpluses). People are dieing and people are leaving. But the Government says it’s stronger than ever. Seems like the Government is at its best when the country is at its worst. This point brings everyone to their feet – the candidate looks like he had a bit more to say, but a sustained bout of singing persuades him to call it a day.
As I leave, a group of women wandering down the road point at me and say: "That party has a fat white man. We should go to their rally". In the interests of balance I decide that I’d better go and stand outside the other parties’ rallies too, so everybody gets the benefit or disadvantage of the fat white man effect.
Zimbabwe feels like a country on the brink of change, but during the long sticky afternoon – no cafes, or cokes, or doughnuts for 100kms! - I hear from plenty of people, who’ll believe it when they see it:
Eli is a wily old trade unionist: "They know every trick in the book. They’ve rigged three elections in a row – there’s no way they’re going to give up power now. They’ll win this election by cheating in a way we haven’t even thought of."
Peter is a parliamentary candidate: "I am well ahead in my constituency, but all the traditional leaders have been bought. They all have cars and electricity. They are telling their people that if they vote for me, their houses will be burned and they’ll be exiled."
Raymond is a headmaster. He’s been taking part in the Government’s official voter education programme: "I think it’s good that they’re trying to educate the voters, but they have excluded me from the programme now, because I keep telling people that they are free to vote how they want and that nobody can monitor a secret ballot. That’s not a message I’m allowed to deliver in the rural areas".
Last stop of the day is dinner with a (ZANU-PF) MP standing for re-election. While I’m catching up on my calorie deficit, he’s in philosophical mood. "Our time may be up. I don’t think I can hold onto my seat. We have to admit that people are tired and hungry and some of them are angry. Of course, our problems date back to what the IMF did to us in the 1980s and that nasty letter your Clare Short wrote to our President in 1997. It might be time to move to the UK and join my family..…." We carry on into the evening. We don’t agree about the causes of Zimbabwe’s problems, but he’s an honest man and he knows that his party is facing the lash of a furious electorate on 29 March.
So what do I think? I think it’s fantastic that the Foreign Office is letting us out of the office for two weeks to assess and understand this election. There were security worries and the usual money shortages, but we’ve got past them and are busily getting waist-deep into this wonderful country and its weird election. Some other Embassies haven’t made it out of Harare’s coffee shops yet.
I also think Zimbabwe is truly hungry for a change of direction. The leaders who took it to independence are revered for that, but people want them – or anybody! – to start running a country which creates jobs and well-being and stops the punishments of abuse, hunger and premature death. But I have to agree with Eli, Peter and Raymond that there are powerful people who have no intention of leaving power, other than in a box. (This a perfect balanced Foreign Office answer – looking clever, but not committing myself to a prediction of the result!)
So that’s Zimbabwe, at Easter, less than a week away from the polls. The man on the Palestinian donkey came back from the dead. Sadly the recovery Zimbabwe needs is similarly biblical in scale. And given the barriers put in their way, it will be an Easter miracle if the people of Zimbabwe are allowed the Government that they would choose in a free vote.