Some weeks back I wasn't sitting in my usual place on this page. My slot was taken up by Mr Fisk of Beirut while a small note explained that I was "away". Oh, the mystery of that word "away". For those of you who were perhaps worried about my absence, it is time to reveal all. In fact it is that esteemed newspaper The Bulawayo Chronicle which has "revealed" all!
According to this paragon of truth I was on a secret military mission deep inside Zimbabwe, bent on destabilising the regime. Not that I was alone, mind you. My accomplice in this crime was Mr John Sweeney, also of the BBC. Worse still, we are in league with the notorious conspirator and Independent correspondent, Mr Basildon Peta.
According to the "Chronic", Mr Peta is heading up the South African and London parts of the operation. There are even secret military bases in South Africa and an office in London from which the arch-conspirator Peta can control everything. Sweeney and I were said to be working for MI5. Our task was to revive memories of the Matabeleland disturbances of the 1980s so as to inflame anti-Mugabe feelings.
Between 1983 and 1985, thousands of people were slaughtered and many more tortured when Mugabe sent the Fifth Brigade of his army to terrorise the civilians of Matabeleland. If you ever hear somebody say Mugabe was a good leader who went wrong, then just remember this simple fact: Robert Mugabe sent the Fifth Brigade into Matabeleland. Their appalling atrocities were brought to his attention within weeks of their deployment, but Mugabe did nothing. Under the law of command responsibility, that makes Robert Mugabe indictable for crimes against humanity.
The British political establishment – left and right – chose the route of diplomatic politeness about Matabeleland. There were private expressions of concern but no public outrage. Britain even brought Mugabe's most cruel henchman – the Fifth Brigade commander, Perence Shiri – to study in London. The explanation is that he was perceived to be someone who would go far in Zimbabwe. Indeed he did. Two years ago he was the man widely believed to be co-ordinating Mugabe's campaign against white farmers.
For 20 years Mugabe was allowed to get away with murder because Britain and the rest of the world believed he was good for his country. Now that Britain has belatedly decided to get tough with Mugabe – 20 years after his worst excesses – John Sweeney and I are, according to the Chronic, acting as the vanguard. I took a good look at the Sweeney fellow yesterday and in a certain light you might convince yourself that he is a special forces officer. That closely shaven head, the broad shoulders and a certain brusque manliness... like I said, in a certain light.
As for me? I went into Zimbabwe wearing a South African rugby jersey, a pair of shorts and a baseball cap. Despite my best efforts to seem mysterious I never looked anything other than a plump white man in Africa. I went into Zimbabwe posing as a tourist because Mr Mugabe will not allow the BBC to work in the country. Being a tourist in a place like Matabeleland calls for some imaginative explanations when you are being questioned at passport control.
I had to think quickly, and sought refuge in my favourite hobby. "I am a fisheries expert," I said. "What does that mean?" asked the official. "It means I try to stop foreigners stealing my country's fish," I replied. At this the official burst out laughing, stamped my passport and bid me on my way.
The difficult thing about being a tourist who has a lot of journalistic work to do is that you do have to go through the motions of being a tourist. In a country in the grip of state paranoia, full of spies and government lickspittles, a tourist with a camera and a notebook tends to stand out. So every day I and my colleagues did something "touristy".
One morning the tour guide suggested we view some rhino in a game park. It was time I would rather have spent interviewing the survivors of Mr Mugabe's atrocities, but appearances demanded I go along. We quickly came across some of the beasts munching happily in the thorn bush. I was happy to observe this from the Land Rover – but the two Italian tourists with us insisted on getting up close. I was shamed into following.
The problem was that the Italian tourists would not stop chattering. The guide pleaded and for a few minutes the torrent subsided. But then it resumed, and as it did the rhino caught our scent. There was a fierce snorting from the other side of the bush, a loud rumble and then the sound of huge animals galloping – away from us. I pictured the headline: "BBC undercover man gored by rhino." Then came the thought of leaving hospital only to enter the tender care of Mr Mugabe's security police.
The ban on the BBC was imposed by his loathsome Minister of Information, Jonathan Moyo. At least Mr Mugabe suffered for his beliefs (a long stint in the jails of the racist Smith regime) and fought for his country. But Mr Moyo is a third-division chancer who has come to prominence in the dying days of the regime. I will be following his long-term career with interest.
I suspect Moyo's slithery hand behind the fairytales in The Bulawayo Chronic. The paper has devoted a large portion of its front page to claiming that Sweeney, Basildon Peta and I are the advance guard of an Anglo-American military offensive to be launched if Robert Mugabe wins Zimbabwe's presidential elections. Let me quote a paragraph of this fascinating tale:
"The plan will take shape after the presidential elections. An insurgency will start in rural Matabeleland. These people will supposedly be fighting the outcome of the polls. When the government moves in to crush the insurgency, the West will intervene and topple President Mugabe."
The report quotes a "highly placed source". This source is indeed "highly placed", for the story has come from the top of somebody's head. For one thing the Panorama film I have been working on has unearthed evidence that is hardly complimentary about British policy in Zimbabwe. Hardly the work of a nest of British agents.
I was called by a reporter with the wholly unsuitable name of "Innocent" Madonko earlier this week. He said he was calling from Bulawayo and when pushed claimed to be on the staff of the Zimbabwe Independent. As the Independent is one of the country's more truthful organs I decided to answer his questions, nothing more than a brief rundown of what was in our film.
At the end of our conversation I asked who he thought would win the election. Was there any chance Mugabe and Tsvangirai could settle things peacefully, I asked? "I doubt it," said Innocent.
It was close he said, too close to call. I pushed a little more. Innocent told me Tsvangirai might win. Now that I know Innocent was working for one of Mugabe's propaganda rags, I can see a cracking headline: "Mugabe hack admits Tsvangirai could do it". It's not a headline you will ever read in the Bulawayo Chronic though. At least not until there is a change of government.
BBC1 is showing 'Mugabe: The Price of Silence' – Fergal Keane's film for 'Panorama' – tomorrow at 10.15pmReuse content