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Candid Column

Mugabe opens gates of hell

By Joram Nyathi

I ENDED this column last week by asking the tormented question of who will protect us “from a vengeful police force so emboldened by a culture of impunity that they can break pe

ople’s skulls in broad daylight without any fear of prosecution”.

The response was swift from the supreme executive authority in the country.

I asked that question because we live under very trying times, as a terrorised population — terrorised by what in a democracy should be a people’s police force, not a colonial institution. I have asked myself several times whether our armed forces have a code of conduct in relation to the civilian population in peace time.

So much has been said about the excellent behaviour of members of the ZRP on peacekeeping missions in Kosovo and other trouble spots. However, these commendations ring hollow when you consider their terror exploits back home, for the brutality perpetrated on ZCTU leaders at Matapi police station two weeks ago was by no means an aberration. It is the staple diet of all poor souls who are unlucky enough to land in the hands of the police for whatever petty crime. The police have become a law unto themselves.

Last week we carried a letter from a man who witnessed a brutal attack on an innocent woman in Avondale by suspected members of the ZRP from Avondale police station. Her crime was to ask whether the vehicle they were in was going to Greencroft.

About a month ago soldiers went on a rampage at Kuwadzana bus terminus in town, beating up commuter bus drivers and civilians allegedly to avenge a colleague who had been beaten by touts the previous day. There have been tales of night revellers in pubs being forced by soldiers to have unprotected sex with prostitutes.

These claims are always denied by officials or they are “investigated” forever. We are still to get the “official truth” about the “Butchers of Matapi” when the inquiry is over. This will be a particularly telling example of state terror as the ZCTU leaders were seized in broad daylight in full view of the public and before the end of the day all of them had suffered multiple injuries or fractures inside a police camp. The attacks duly drew worldwide condemnation.

What I however found extraordinary is the complicit silence on the fate of the 70 or so other arrested workers. While the ZCTU leaders have virtually been compensated for their injuries by the publicity they are getting, a Martian would imagine there were only 15 people arrested on September 13.

Even the private media have forgotten about these wretched of the earth who probably don’t have money to go to private hospitals for treatment, let alone the luxury of travelling to South Africa. Instead the spotlight has been on the headline-grabbing lives of the leadership. The public media have become the voyeuristic “Watchers of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo” atrocities while they see no evil at home.

Trade unionists from across the globe have protested against the attack on the ZCTU leadership, not the majority of the workers who are likely to suffer greater harm because they remain nameless outside the media spotlight. Yet for any trade union movement or political party to succeed it must rely on these nameless multitudes flippantly called the masses. They are seen as expendable and come in limitless quantities. It is only the leaders who matter when it comes to suffering pain because they are a rare species of men.

Anyway, the executive response to my question came through an interview President Mugabe gave in New York. Asked about the attacks on the ZCTU leaders by the police, he blamed it on “one or two overzealous policemen exaggerating their role”.

This might be true, it might not. My prayer is that it is not true because if it is, it confirms my fears of a complete breakdown of law and order in the country.

The Butchers of Matapi have become too numerous in the police and the army to be dismissed as a few deviant elements. Police brutality has become the norm, especially among ordinary civilians who take the beatings for granted.

One only needs to observe police arresting vendors selling their wares at undesignated points or soldiers controlling commuters in a bus queue to appreciate their propensity to violence. And the people appear completely overawed to respond even if it’s just one unarmed soldier.

No Mr President, it’s not the odd deranged soldier or policeman spoiling it for the rest. Violence has become endemic in the uniformed forces because there are no sanctions against those who violate people’s rights. It has become a part of policing culture that needs to be stopped swiftly to heal the trauma that Zimbabweans are living everyday.

The experience of ZCTU leaders at Matapi served well to dramatise the horror of Zimbabwean detainees more generally. Unfortunately this perverse pleasure in violence and torture is not a sickness that can be cured by merely setting up a Human Rights Commission or passing a Domestic Violence Act about which there has been melodramatic hype.

And when a president pronounces a peaceful protest by hungry workers an insurrection and extols the virtues of police savagery, it fills me with a deep sense of dread. It means every little officer can now make a papal bull against you, knowing it will get presidential assent.

Zimbabweans must be afraid, very afraid indeed. Mugabe has just opened for us the gates of hell.

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