Make them run: Human rights in Zimbabwe

Shari Eppel
Shari Eppel (© Eric Beauchemin)

Following the re-election of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in March 2003, violence continued unabated. Victims could not submit complaints because the rule of law had collapsed. Throughout Zimbabwe, there was a growing climate of fear. According to Shari Eppel, a Zimbabwean human rights activist, “we’re living in a society which condones torture, condones the torturer and makes it actually illegal to expose what’s happening. It’s like living in a Kafka novel.”

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: May 21, 2002


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Make them run: Human rights in Zimbabwe”.

We’re living in a society which condones torture, condones the torturer and makes it actually illegal to expose what’s happening. It’s a completely bizarre situation where the illegal is legal. It’s just bizarre.

The southern African country of Zimbabwe was long an example for other developing countries. It emerged from a brutal civil war to become a real success story in Africa, under the leadership of Robert Mugabe.

But that picture has changed in recent years. Today, 80% of Zimbabweans are unemployed. 1 million of the country’s 13 million people are at risk of dying before the end of the year because of one of the severest droughts southern Africa has seen in decades. Food shortages have been made worse by the seizure of white-owned commercial farms under the sanction of the president. Participation in the war in neighbouring Congo has drained the country’s resources.

Zimbabweans expected that the presidential elections in March would bring back hope. But the ballot was marred by violence and fraud: international observers said the elections were not free or fair. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change or MDC didn’t have a chance against President Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party. At age 78, Robert Mugabe, who has been in office since independence in 1980, was re-elected to another 6-year term.

International attention faded after the elections but violence has not stopped. In fact, it has increased. Shari Eppel, a Zimbabwean who works for a human rights organisation, spoke with Radio Netherlands Eric Beauchemin. The portrait she gives is a bleak one and listeners should be warned, her account is at times disturbing.

In fact, it’s my opinion that since the election, the violence has actually escalated in certain areas. There certainly were reprisal attacks in some districts, and in fact during his inaugural address, our president actually invoked violence, partly in English and partly in Shona. People have highlighted the fact that his speech talked about unity between ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, but as is quite typical of Mugabe, his speech was contradictory. At one point, he said “we will make them run. If they have not run before, we will make them run now. There will be no more pandering to the opposition. Those days are gone. We are now entering an era of very, very firm governance.” And that’s what we have seen. That was a euphemism for violence and retaliation against opposition party supporters. EB: In the run-up to the elections, there was a lot of coverage of the land seizures, the seizures of white farms and of the violence against white people. But actually most of the violence has been against blacks. That’s absolutely correct. The violence on the farms has been of great interest in Europe because it has affected white people, but in actual fact it’s only 4000 commercial farmers in Zimbabwe, and these are not the people who have borne the brunt of the violence. We’ve documented around 40,000 victims of human rights violations, and all of these have been black. The people we are seeing affected are the people in rural areas, civil servants like black school teachers and nurses in rural areas and peasant farmers. And the violence has not so much to do with land as with the destruction of support for the first real threat to this government in 20 years: the Movement for Democratic Change. EB: What type of form does this violence take? It’s multiple. We’ve seen a lot of very just crude torture at the level of the community, using home-made instruments of torture such as leather whips with nuts and bolts tied to the end. This has been a new phenomenon post election. Whipping people with chains, whipping people with links of barbed wire tied to wooden sticks. These are all instruments of torture, designed for that purpose and has no other practical purpose at all. This is a very worrying form of violence because it’s happening at the level of communities, and it’s often family members against one another, and the destruction to the social fabric is really horrific. EB: Why is it family members against each other? Because often you will find within a family supporters of ZANU and supporters of MDC, and there’s also been this phenomenon of militias, youth militias, where young people have been herded into training camps to be trained as a kind of youth army. The government denies that this is the intention behind the militia, and they call it a kind of a national service training and these people are learning skills. Often what we’ve heard from militias who’ve defected is that they joined this system in the belief that they would actually get real skills to enhance their educational opportunities in a country where more than 90% of school-leavers have no hope of employment. But in fact what they were trained to do was to go out and set up road blocks and beat and abuse other people within their communities. EB: Are they the main ones who are perpetrating the violence or is it mostly the so-called war veterans? We’ve seen a lot of militia violence. The war veterans violence continues and also just ZANU-PF supporters per se, plus actual uniformed forces. There were reprisals actually by army immediately after the election, and we hear of quite a bit of torture by the police and the CIO [Central Intelligence Organisation, ed.] and the police internal security intelligence units. But the militias work under the instruction of the war veterans by and large. Most of their camps are run by war veterans and they’re under their supervision.

EB: You were speaking about torture. I think to get an idea of what is actually happening in Zimbabwe, it would be good to give a couple of examples. You showed me some pictures yesterday of a couple of victims. One particularly gruesome case was a man who had the soles of his feet burnt. Yes, this was just a few days before the elections on the third or fourth of March. He was nobody in particular. He was taken to a militia camp in one of the major city centres. He actually had four or five people torturing him at the same time. His hands were handcuffed behind his back. They sat on him, and then they held flaming logs to the soles of his feet until his feet were entirely scorched off. It’s now two months since that injury and his feet still bleed, are rotten. Skin grafts have failed. His feet are just the most unbelievable mess, and it’s very unlikely that he is going to walk again in the foreseeable future. In other words, his life has been ruined. EB: You talked to me about another case, of a mother who was pregnant. Yes, we’ve had several cases of torture against women. There are certain districts which are still extremely bad in Zimbabwe in terms of violence and what we are seeing is psychological torture, across the board discrimination, as well as physical torture. This particular mother was tortured in May 2000, before the general election, and she was denied clinic care at the local clinic because she was an MDC supporter. So we are seeing politically-select health care. She was then denied antenatal care during 2001 when she was pregnant. And in November 2001, she was tortured when she was eight months pregnant, kicked until she bled. She then had to deliver in a hut on her own with no medical supervision. The baby was not given a birth certificate and was not inoculated on birth because the mother was too scared to take the child to the clinic, and the child was then tortured when one week old. Some war veterans came back to the mother’s hut late at night, gagged her, beat her, took the baby and swung it around their heads, said it belonged to Tsvangirai, who’s the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. They said the baby was Tsvangirai’s property, and they could destroy it if they wanted. They smacked it all over the body, and they eventually threw it down when neighbours started to come. She had to run into the bush with this baby. Neither she nor the child received medical treatment. She actually has quite serious injuries. She has serious back injuries from the torture in November, and she also has a hematoma the size of an orange, full of old blood, which has completely displaced her bladder and means she has no urinary control. So she’s been suffering like that since November last year until April of this year without any access to medical treatment until she was able to get medical treatment from us, and we are 250 kilometres away from where she lives.

This is only one of many stories that illustrate Zimbabwe’s descent into lawlessness. The next account comes from a man who was forced to flee with his family after being attacked by ZANU-PF supporters who accused him of being a supporter of the opposition and therefore an agent of the former colonial power, Great Britain. The family has now taken refuge in a remote rural area. They’re still terrified.

We are totally defenceless. We know there is nothing we can do to protect ourselves. That’s why we are here. We are displaced. I have brought my family here. We are not the only ones. We also have several people from our area who are displaced, who are living here with their families. My house is also destroyed after the elections. The building structure was totally damaged. The windows were pulled out. Door frames were pulled out. This is how it is. It was just ?? with a bunch of lunatics had been in the place, and all of this because I’m supposed to be a supporter of the MDC party. They’re telling me that all MDC supporters, all MDC polling agents and all those officials who were working before the election and during the election must leave the area and must go to Britain where they can live with Tony Blair or Harare where Morgan Tsvangirai managed to win. That’s what they said. It’s going on right now. How can one love a government which is held to destroy one’s lifetime work? People spend years to gather things, and then these things are destroyed within a day. How can that person then go on to love the perpetrators of such an evil deed? This is evil.

According to Shari Eppel, hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans have become refugees in their own country.

Numbers fluctuate a lot around how many displaced and it’s not always easy to say because with the extended family system in Zimbabwe, people who are displaced may sit on the side of the road for a day or two rather forlornly, but they then will go and find relatives somewhere and be absorbed into some part of their extended family. But we are seeing large shanty towns growing up on the outskirts of the major cities, and some estimates say that around half a million Zimbabweans are internally displaced refugees at this stage. EB: Can you give me some examples of how the violence actually works in for example a village? Is it that the militiamen arrive and they destroy everything in the village? They destroy the houses and people’s belongings and then people flee as a result. What happens? It’s actually in a sense worse than that in some of these districts where the violence is bad because militia camps are in the village. It’s not a case of the militia arriving. They are there, and very often they’ve taken over something like the local high school or the local clinic. They’re there as a permanent basis, just looking for trouble on a daily basis. In a small village, you will know who are the MDC supporters and who are the ZANU-PF supporters, and the opposition supporters just have an incredibly relentlessly tough time. It’s just a low-grade civil war, and a lot of the oppression is just psychological. It’s prejudice. I suppose one could in some ways liken it to apartheid in South Africa or to the Nazi era, where if you are an MDC supporter, it’s a bit like being a Jew in the early days in Nazi Germany, where basically you have stories of children being thrown out of school. We’ve had a lot of stories of selective access to health care here in the clinics. We have war veterans and militia guarding some boreholes in some districts and forbidding MDC supporters to even have access to water. They have to go sneak in the middle of the night to draw water. So it’s very hard to quantify the effect of something like that. Not many lives have been lost, but this type of relentless discrimination is very, very depressing for people who have to live with it. EB: For people who don’t now Africa, this may sound like another country descending into violence, but Zimbabwe is not Angola. It’s not Sierra Leone. It’s not Liberia. Zimbabwe has a very different tradition. That’s correct. On the whole, during the past decade, things have been very peaceful in Zimbabwe and heading towards greater democracy. But to the extent that this has become very threatening to the existing ZANU-PF government that’s been in power unchallenged for more than two decades and the violence has been deliberately orchestrated by ZANU in order to try and remain in power at this stage.

It’s difficult in the country now to know where to turn for justice. A man in his 40s – who looks much older – recounts how he and his wife escaped the militias and spent days and nights in the bush before arriving in one of the big cities. They left behind their 16-year-old daughter, a 12-year-old son, and 7-year-old twins. The night he left, the militias returned and they raped his daughter.

They knocked knocked and knocked until…She said she tried to resist but it was impossible for her because she was also frightened. She opened the door. They asked for the keys to her bedroom. They get into the room, get into her bedroom. They opened my wardrobe. They mobbed all the clothing. Then she said they raped her in front of all this group. They were watching, singing, shouting ZANU-PF songs.

The man’s daughter fled to the city where her father had taken refuge and then they went to the local police station to press charges. ZANU-PF supporters were there and began to badger the man and his raped daughter. The militants accused them of being responsible for the rape and the destruction of the family home because they had voted for the opposition.

What’s wrong? Why? What happened? Why did you get raped? What were you doing? You people! You voted for that nonsense party. Why didn’t you vote for ZANU-PF? Now look, your family is in disgrace. How could I come to love a government who trains people to be thugs in the country? These things are properly arranged from the president himself. It’s not a local thing. It’s from the top.

Violence and injustice instigated from the top are part of a reality in which laws are meaningless and impunity reigns. For human rights organisations, the future is bleak indeed.

One of the really shocking things about Zimbabwe has been the collapse of the rule of law and the undermining of the judiciary. This has served to reinforce a long and sad history of impunity which we have in Zimbabwe, which of course goes back to the colonial era. I would say we have had 100 years of impunity. There was some accountability during the ‘90s. During the ‘80s, there wasn’t in our part of the country, where we had the gukurahundi massacres by this government during the 1980s, and no accountability for that. Sadly we’re seeing the same thing. And this is one of the hardest things psychologically for victims to deal with. They can have their entire houses destroyed, their children raped can be beaten. They can lose absolutely everything, and they can’t even go to the police and persuade the police to open a case and to arrest perpetrators. In the majority of cases, people know who the perpetrators are. They know them by name or they know them by face. We have a woman whose son was killed by the police in a public place, a well-witnessed event late last year. She has been trying to get justice for her son. There was a postmortem done on her son, but the report was sent to the very police who had actually killed him, and the family have never had this postmortem result. We’ve managed to track the postmortem for them, and he was clearly killed extremely violently. He actually died of a ruptured heart and a ruptured diaphragm, broken ribs and broken vertebrae. But the finding of the report was road traffic accident, that he jumped out of a moving police vehicle and that’s what caused his death. Now we have many eyewitnesses to the fact that he was dragged by his heels and thrown unconscious or even possibly dead into the back of a police truck, and there’s absolutely no credibility in the idea that he jumped out of a moving police vehicle. He was dead or near to death at the time that he was put into the vehicle. Unfortunately, it’s extremely hard at this stage to try and get justice for this mother because the control of the state and state organs over their own reputations and their own impunity is so extreme that it’s not advisable probably for her to try and bring a court case at this stage. EB: But this must make the work of human rights activists and human rights organisations extremely difficult if not impossible. It does, and not only that. There is some very draconian legislation which has come into place in the course of this year, which is very threatening to the activities of anyone who believes in freedom of speech. I’m thinking of the Public Order and Security Act which has really some frightening clauses in, which says for example that if you facilitate any statements about the police, the army or any other organ of the State which might damage their reputation – whether you make the statement yourself or whether you facilitate somebody else making such a statement – then you have committed an offence and you should go to jail for five years. There’s also a clause called usurping the functions of government, which is a non-bailable offence from the time of being charged and which has a 20-year prison term without option of a fine. And it’s very unclear what it means to usurp the functions of government, but it’s kind of a blanket clause which would give them the right to shut down or arrest key human rights activists at any time that it suits them. EB: What are the implications for you, for example? Well, basically, very much of the work that we do would, at a certain technical level, be entirely outside of the law, in terms of this law. We are living in a society which condones torture, condones the torturer and makes it illegal to actually expose what’s happening. It’s a completely bizarre situation, where the illegal is legal, and it’s a very strange environment in which to try and do human rights work. EB: It sounds like Kafka. Yeah, absolutely. It’s like living in a Kafaka novel. I mean, for example, many of our torture victims end up charged with the offences committed against them. People will be tortured for days in jail and then finally released after having signed admission of assault to their own assaults and having paid deposit fines and that’s how they get out of jail. It’s just bizarre.

EB: You were saying also that many of the victims cannot get any type of treatment in hospitals or medical clinics. These medical health professionals have also been coerced by the authorities? Yes, I must also add that this isn’t national. Certainly in some districts where ZANU-PF has a stranglehold, instructions have gone out to people in clinics and hospitals not to treat patients without letters of authorisation from the police and not to treat MDC supporters. This is two-fold. In some cases, it’s because war veterans stand outside the clinic queues and actually throw people out of the clinic queues. In other cases, it’s because health professionals are actually in collusion and refusing even basic things like antenatal care and inoculations of children to families that are known to support the opposition. EB: Is this also affecting children in schools, for instance? We did have reports of some children who’d been thrown out of school, even as young as six because their parents were MDC supporters. But what we are seeing now is not so much that as a phenomenon as the fact that families are displaced and dysfunctional because of the violence, where you have bread winners or even both parents who fled the family homestead as the result of threats or beatings and children who are growing up virtually as orphans or in extremely unstable and threatening circumstances, virtually under refugee conditions in their own homesteads and who are not in school and not receiving food.

EB: There is this massive political violence. And on the other hand, people are also suffering because there’s a huge drought throughout southern Africa, which is also affecting Zimbabwe. The tragedy in the case of our nation ìs the drought is partly what is resulting in food shortages and partly the food shortages are politically induced because of the invasion of the commercial farms which has undermined the food base of the nation entirely this year, to the extent that we’re looking at between 400,000 and 1 million tonnes of maize being needed to come into the country, and so far we only have around 40,000 tonnes committed from the international community to Zimbabwe. The reason people are anxious about giving food aid to Zimbabwe is that it’s very clear to them the potential for political abuse of food. And sadly we have certainly had some reports of such abuse. EB: Can you give me examples? Food can be accessed in rural areas through probably three main ways. The one is food for work schemes where people have to work rebuilding roads, for example, and then they get paid in food. The other thing is to go the Grain Marketing Board, which is a government institution and buy it. And the third is through donor feeding schemes. And what we are finding is in some extreme districts, in all three of these ways, food is being denied to opposition supporters. It’s very widespread in the country that food for work and buying through the Grain Marketing Board is banned to opposition supporters. You have to be in possession of a ZANU-PF party card and be known to be a member of ZANU in order to just go and buy food with your own money. But it is predicted that there will be tens of thousands of deaths in Zimbabwe before the end of this year as a result of starvation. EB: But, in spite of this, you would oppose any food aid to the country. No, I wouldn’t put it like that. I find it very difficult to have that as just a straight policy. I know that confronted with starving children, I would certainly wish that they had food to eat But I am concerned about the possibility of political manipulation, and I am concerned that unless food comes in with very strict strings attached by donors, it’s going to be ruthlessly exploited for political ends by our government, and the food will end up going to ZANU supporters only, and it will be MDC children aged under 5 supposedly – I mean, what child of 3 or 4 has a political belief – but children of MDC families will the ones who starve. So my recommendation would be that food coming into the country should have strings attached. While I know this is against the principles of humanitarian food aid, perhaps it’s time for those principles to change.

EB: What is the public mood in the country? You’re describing a very terrible situation. 80% of the population is unemployed. 80% of the people are living under the poverty line. What is the public mood in the country? People are desperate. People are in a state of black depression by and large. I feel that something will break, something will change, that we are on a downward slide, but the people are not going to sit and watch it happen. At the moment, people are still reeling from the psychological shock of ZANU having stolen the presidential election. I think that’s very widely acknowledged and there’s a lot of hard proof for that at this stage that the election was by and large stolen and probably two-thirds of the electorate of Zimbabwe support Morgan Tsvangirai and would have wanted him to be the president. So we are in a situation where the president, sitting president, doesn’t really have the mandate of the people, and people are not too sure what to do about that. The basic principle behind the Movement for Democratic Change has always been peaceful change, legal change and to abide by the rule of law. But it’s starting to look increasingly difficult to get rid of a violent and repressive regime by legal means. EB: Do you think that people will start going out onto the streets and demonstrating and calling for the overthrow of President Mugabe? I really don’t know. I’m not sure what’s going to lie ahead, but I do feel that Zimbabwe is on a downward slide, and it’s a very strange situation to see the country kind of just fall apart at the moment, and I think that internationally, people have just turned away in a media way. There’s no international awareness of how very, very grim things are for most Zimbabweans at the moment.

EB: How is all of this affecting you on a personal level? I spend a lot of time being very angry and a lot of time being very sad. It’s awful, the terrible torture we see walking through our doors, and what’s even worse is knowing that it’s very limited what we can do to look after people and keep them safe and to repair destroyed lives. We can’t help people to achieve justice, and we can’t help people to rebuild lives which have been entirely destroyed in the space of a few hours. EB: But it must also be extremely difficult to have torture victims come into your office every single day and to have to listen to these detailed accounts of what actually happened to them. Yes, it is. I mean it’s very traumatic, especially because at the moment there’s no timeline. There was a sense that perhaps in March, the election results could change things and we could see a return to accountability. Now, there’s no timeline. We’re just looking at months stretching ahead and no clear sense of when it will end. I think that’s one of the hardest things for victims and for us who work with them. It’s the sense that we can’t say, well by November, it will change or by June next year it will change. We just don’t know what time scale we’re looking at now in terms of an end to this repression. EB: You yourself are also at risk by doing this work, aren’t you? Yes, certainly. There is harassment of civil society. It’s quite common for leaders in civil society to have death threats, to be picked up on spurious charges, invited in for questioning, and this can be a very intimidatory experience, and it’s a very widespread and common experience within civil society at this stage. Of course, it interferes with the way you operate because all the time you are worrying about being at risk, about putting staff at risk, about putting clients at risk. We should be able to operate in a situation where we are a safe haven for victims, and yet we cannot assume that is the case. EB: You yourself have received death threats. You also face the possibility at some point of being imprisoned. Yes, but I still feel that the risk to me is much less than to many others. It’s not something I think about too much.

A courageous woman: Zimbabwean human rights activist, Shari Eppel. You’ll find more on the situation in Zimbabwe on Radio Netherlands website at With thanks to Eric Beauchemin, Edwina Spicer and technician Rob Noten, I’m Ginger da Silva.