SOME 50 years ago, observing the trial of Nazi war criminals, the German-American journalist Hannah Arendt coined the enduring phrase “the banality of evil”. At a time when Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa, for the benefit of the UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay, has tried to apply lipstick to the toad of Zimbabwe’s human rights record and army generals have suggested that the security forces are preparing to redeploy the tactics utilised during the bloody 2008 elections, that phrase rings true for us today.
Throughout the 2008 election period, the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) produced a series of reports documenting the atrocities which were taking place. To ensure their credibility, these reports were restricted to verifiable information which detailed the injuries sustained by the victims of the violence.
As one of those involved in interviewing the victims, I was acutely aware that many of the harrowing stories behind those injuries were never published. However, with the looming spectre of a return to orchestrated violence in the coming elections, I would like to recount my experience of those interviews.
In April of 2008, as a member of the executive committee of ZADHR, I was tasked with interviewing hospitalised victims of political violence. Over a period of several days, I interviewed 52 men and women, ranging in age from 18 to 68 years. All of them resided in communal areas and most were ordinary villagers. They were not political activists and none admitted membership of a political party. Their only apparent crime was to have been suspected of voting “incorrectly”. The vast majority stated they had been beaten by gangs of youths led and directed by men in army uniforms and war veterans.
It is not possible to recount their individual stories here, but one story stands out in my memory and will serve to illustrate the point I wish to make. It was that of an 18-year old lad whose village was visited by a militia at night which ordered all the young men to gather. They then conducted a pungwe and at around midnight, the leader of the militia announced they were all to proceed to the next village where they were to beat up the occupants whom he said were “sell-outs”. The boy refused to participate saying he had known them all his life and some of them were his friends. So the thugs beat him up instead. He was hospitalised with a fractured arm and leg and had contusions and bruises over his buttocks and back. His spirit, however, was very much intact and he was bristling with defiance. I was left in no doubt, that given the choice, he would make the same courageous decision again.
The purpose of the methodical campaign of brutality was not to punish, but to instil fear sufficient enough to ensure they voted “correctly” in the run-off election. But therein lies the rub. As in the case of the brave village lad, none of the 52 people I interviewed manifested any sign of fear. They were stoic and defiant. The one emotion they had in common was anger; a deep and abiding anger at the affront to their human dignity.
Those contemplating a return to the tactics of 2008 should not underestimate the dignity, resilience and courage of ordinary Zimbabweans.
And finally, they should draw lessons from history, recent and past, remembering the eventual fate of the once smug, arrogant men who Arendt observed in that courtroom 50 years ago.
Dr Greg Powell,