I had never seen a combat machine gun in a civilian hospital until the day I went to Harare’s Avenues Clinic to visit two women, pro-democracy leaders who had just survived a brutal, methodical beating at the hands of the police.
“We went through unspeakable torture. Each time that night when we heard the sound of boots returning, our bowels loosened,” said Grace Kwinjeh of the ordeal she and Sekai Holland, 64, underwent.
Now they were attempting to heal while under armed guard, hearing those same boots approaching their bedsides intermittently throughout the night.
Zimbabwe’s “3/11” – the day 50 people set out to attend a prayer meeting but ended up suffering hours of torture by security agents – shocked the world and raised hopes that President Robert Mugabe’s impunity might at last be halted. But barely a month later, the television news cameras are pointing elsewhere, and international leaders are switching off their phones, declining to hear the shrill cries coming out of Zimbabwe.
Why? There are two reasons. First, southern African leaders have told the world that the Zimbabwe problem must be left to them to address; and second, the new victims of Mugabe’s crackdown are “smaller” people – street level pro-democracy organizers, known in their communities but scarcely recognized in the neighboring district, let alone in the wider world.
At least 600 of them have been abducted and tortured by state terror agents this year. Far from being chastened by all the attention, Mugabe’s regime has stepped up its efforts, invading homes at night, picking off local leaders and activists and taking them to cells in isolated police stations. Officers who protest are court-martialed and transferred to remote stations. A journalist has recently been murdered. And lest they protest too loudly, non-governmental organizations have been warned that they may lose their license to operate.
The world has been told – as so often during the past seven years – to put matters in the hands of South African President Thabo Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy. Yet the repression and violence have only intensified since Mbeki received his mandate from his neighboring heads of state. Far from condemning Mugabe, they called for the “lifting of all forms of sanctions against Zimbabwe” and insisted that the scandalously rigged elections of the past six years had been free and fair.