Vimbai Maburutse was huddled crouching behind a car with others, trying to shield themselves the best they could from the street battles going on around them, when soldiers running by stopped and opened fire.
“They were shooting into the car, they could see there was no one inside, but they could also see we were on the other side, they were trying to hit us through the door and window. They wanted to kill us. That is the only thing I can think of. It is very sad, but our army was being used to try to kill us,” she said as she shook her head.
The violence that had erupted in Zimbabwe’s capital was fierce and unexpected. A volatile crowd angry at what they saw as the theft of a bitterly contested election had been largely dispersed by police using tear gas, baton rounds and water cannons when armoured personnel carriers (APCs) came tearing in. Troops surged out, using live rounds from their semi-automatic rifles and, on at least on a few occasions, stabbing with bayonets. Six people were killed, another 25 injured.
Vimbai was adamant that there had been no trouble, no provocation from her section of the crowd when the security forces acted with such aggression. One of her companions was killed. She helped to put another, badly injured, into one of the taxis acting as makeshift ambulances. She is herself now having medical treatment after being hit repeatedly with sjamboks, the heavy rhino-hide whips favoured by the security forces in apartheid South Africa, which have left deep scars on her back.
The 28-year-old woman had been a monitor for the opposition MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) at the polls and felt she was entirely justified in taking part in demonstrating against what she considered to be hijacking of the election by acting president Emmerson Mnangagwa and the ruling Zanu-PF party, cheating the opposition and its leader, Nelson Chamisa.
Vimbai was just one among many opposition supporters wondering about how this could all have been possible while the country was under global scrutiny. “The fraud took place with all these international observers here. That is bad, but then we had those terrible killings with international observers here; how is that possible?” she asked me.
There were, in fact, 4,500 international observers in Zimbabwe for the election and the violence started outside the Rainbow Towers Hotel, where teams from the European Union, the US and African states were delivering their reports into the election. The overall consensus was that the campaign was remarkably peaceful, barring some irregularities and “soft intimidation”.
The local media, too, were questioning the role of these international observers, with claims that some of them were seen drinking in hotel bars while people were dying outside. This has been strongly denied by the observers.
They were not, however, the only foreign contingent in Zimbabwe. The media was also here in large numbers from many countries and the images of the shootings, beatings, whippings and stabbings by security forces went around the world with all the dreadful PR this meant for 75-year-old Mnangagwa, a former friend of Robert Mugabe turned foe, who had been reinventing himself to the international community as a reformer.
Mnangagwa put out a tweet saying he deeply regretted the deaths, apologised, and said an investigation would begin into what happened.
If the foreign observers had been trying to stay away from trouble, they could not avoid it when trouble came to them at a city centre hotel, the Bronte, where some of them were staying along with a number of journalists (including me).
It happened on what was meant to be Zimbabwe’s first day after the official end of the Mugabe era, with an election and a new president. Chamisa was due to hold a press conference, his first public appearance after his party had lost the parliament to Zanu-PF and he had lost the presidency to Mnangagwa.
We all knew what to expect: claims from Chamisa that the election had been stolen and that he was determined to overturn the result. But Mnangagwa and Zanu-PF had a strong hand; the results had come not just from the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC), which the opposition had repeatedly accused of being in cahoots with the ruling party, but an independent watchdog and had been signed off by foreign monitors.
Then three carriers full of armed riot police backed by water cannons suddenly arrived outside the hotel. Wearing their protective gear, body armour, visored helmets and knee and armpads over their blue uniforms, they charged into the garden where cameras and microphones had been set up, banging their riot sticks into their shields, ordering everyone out and threatening arrests if people failed to do so.
After a brief confrontation, it was the police who exited stage left, pursued by the journalists. A little later, the information minister, SK Moyo, appeared at the hotel, asking journalists to attend the Chamisa presser which was being held after all. The MDC leader, predictably, had a field day, adding intimidation by police to all his other charges against the Zanu-PF.
All this was again filmed and disseminated across the world to the embarrassment of the Zimbabwe government. Mnangagwa put out a tweet deeply regretting the police raid, apologised, and said yet another investigation would begin into what had happened.
The crackdown has continued in the last few days, with MDC members charged with offences of inciting violence; some have been abducted and beaten up, others have disappeared. “Soldiers are going door to door, there are people disappearing, some have been arrested, with atrocious treatment, we have put some in safe houses, some are hiding, so it’s difficult to get the numbers affected,” said Nkululeko Sibanda, a senior MDC official.
Coming from the opposition, one has to be careful about taking these allegations at face value, but my colleagues and I have come across enough cases of abuse by armed and uniformed men to see that it is going on in a systematic way.
The international community are aware of what is unfolding. There are condemnations from the US, UK and other Western countries. Foreign investment – something an economy at near collapse desperately needs – is being scared away, and the chances of sanctions being lifted soon are receding, as are Zimbabwe’s chances of rejoining the Commonwealth.
So is it the case that the president simply does not care about the hugely negative impact of what is happening? Or are there other factors at play? A senior foreign diplomat who was speaking to Mnangagwa at the time of Wednesday’s street fights said he was not even aware that troops have been deployed. He and other ministers seemed equally unaware of the hotel raid until it happened.
There have been persistent reports of a power struggle between Mnangagwa and his vice president, General Constantine Chiwenga, the former head of the armed forces. The general, and not the president, is said to have hosted a meeting of selected members of the Zanu-PF politburo, the evening before the troops went on to the streets.
Questioned about the reports of the continuing violent campaign against MDC supporters, a spokesman for the military responded: “There must be people impersonating us, putting on army uniforms to create mischief, this is unfortunate, we will look into it.”
All questions about what has been going on over the past week will be answered at a press conference by the military and the police at Harare’s police base, Morris Depot, on Sunday, we were told. We left after waiting for 90 minutes for anyone from either of the forces to turn up.
Reports of rifts – within the government and within the military and within the police – continue. On Monday, the police announced that 16 senior officers have been suspended over what happened last Wednesday – not for violence against the public, but for supposedly not being tough enough against the demonstrators.
There is likely to be much internecine strife, along with many twists and episodes of violence among powerful and ambitious factions as a new order is forged in Zimbabwe. The elections were the first steps away from the time of Robert Mugabe, but it remains to be seen where the journey ends.
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