Do they sleep soundly at night?
Dr Alex T. Magaisa
Those of us who witnessed the incident lost something that day; we were violently robbed of the precious innocence of youth.
You see, when you have observed a naked display of barbarism, it is very difficult to express it in words. At those times, silence can seem the only perfect response. It can be easy for writers to overestimate the importance of what they do, but there are times when events cause a certain jolt; when all words appear to pale into insignificance. You are tempted to put down the pen and respond to the almost peremptory call of silence. In the wake of the brutal events obtaining in Zimbabwe in recent days, it is a temptation that has been difficult to resist.
But then it occurred to me that responding to the call of silence, would be a grim betrayal to all those men and women who have suffered. But even then, all the possible subjects, for which I had prepared, suddenly appear irrelevant.
So today, I thought I would simply reflect on the brutal manifestation of mindless cruelty perpetrated by man over man, in the beleaguered nation of Zimbabwe. And this is where my early experience of the cruelty of humankind comes in.
It is many years now, but occasionally, especially when I witness the display of sadism, I still hear echoes of the tortured cries of the little birds. They were just small eaglets, barely feathered and had hardly seen much of the world to which they had just recently been introduced. We saw him high up in the tall tree, frantically making his way up to the big nest. Some of his friends stood below, urging him on, while others stood by, watching the spectacle, with obvious excitement. He had already started ripping the nest apart by the time we got to the scene. Then he threw them, one by one, the little eaglets, down to his friends under the tree. Up in the sky, the mother eagle issued shrill cries, manifestly angry but helpless in the circumstances. It circled viciously and tried more than once to yank a piece of the boy’s flesh, but each time it got closer, his friends below hurled large stones at the eagle.
Why, we asked, were they the doing that to the little birds. They said that eagles deserved to suffer and die because they are a menace in their village – they prey on the young chickens and food. But these eaglets were harmless, we said. They said it was best to catch them young.
The other eagles, they tried to rationalise, would know that they should not prey on their food and young chickens in the village. But it is in the nature of eagles to behave as they do, we said. They said they did not care. It was fun anyway, they claimed, and went on to tie the hapless birds on strings and hang them on tree branches and take vicious aim with their catapults and stones. The deathly sounds of the little, defenceless creatures pierced the stillness of an otherwise serene summer’s mid-afternoon. Mother eagle hovered above in desperation. It was clear she could do nothing in the face human power and cruelty.
It was difficult to fathom, the fact that a human being could be capable of such wickedness. It was obvious the boys were enjoying the whole sordid exercise. It was hard to understand how a decent person could actually find it an enjoyable spectacle. Did they not come from a home with a mother and father? Did they not have young brothers and sisters in their homes? How, we tried to comprehend, would they sleep at night? Would they simply banish this from their memories and sleep soundly throughout the night, without even having nightmares filled with the deathly cries of the defenceless eaglets?
We stood by, helpless – helpless because we thought there was not much we could do against admittedly bigger and notoriously ruthless boys from the next village. We had looked to the bigger boys in our group but they had also stood by, clearly unimpressed by the spectacle but not having the will to intervene. After all they were just birds, they were eagles and they could not be drawn into a fight over eagles.
Later on, I would, with a sense of guilt, wonder whether I could have done something; whether we could have done something to save those defenceless creatures, which had been tortured so ruthlessly before our eyes and whose lives had been terminated for no reason other than that they were eagles. There was, I must admit, a sense of embarrassment; embarrassment at being a member of the human race which had so exposed itself as capable to doing grievous harm even to unarmed and defenceless creatures; embarrassment at the fact that I had done nothing to prevent the cowardly attacks. There was a deep sense of guilt at the actions of my fellow human beings, by whose actions the brief life journey of the little birds had been so violently and abruptly interrupted.
That day I lost something; all of us who witnessed it -- we all lost
something. There was, to sum it up, a deep sense of betrayal in respect
of the nature of the human being. We learnt, in that very episode, humanity’s
capacity for cruelty.
Perhaps they became policemen. Perhaps one of them shot Gift Tandare in cold blood on Sunday. Perhaps they were there, when Morgan Tsvangirai, Lovemore Madhuku, Arthur Mutambara, Tendai Biti and others were beaten up in recent days. I would not be surprised if they were. Not that it makes a big difference if they weren’t. I am just not surprised that some of our members of the human race are capable of that. What is a shame though, is how the plight of victims is sometimes forgotten and instead, some of us blame the victims for their predicament. We become the victims of our own victimhood. Perhaps it’s human nature to try and rationalise violence – to try and explain it, even when it’s absurd to do so.
I am reminded of my readings in women’s law – of the “Battered Wife Syndrome” – in simple terms, a physical and psychological condition by which a wife who has been repeatedly and systematically abused by her spouse over a period of time, becomes so tormented and weary that she is unable and unwilling to take action to defend herself. Rather, she begins to see herself as the problem; she blames herself for her predicament, and tries even to rationalise the behaviour of her spouse.
In short, this is a case where the victim blames herself for her unfortunate position. I am not surprised therefore, that some people might be criticising the MDC leadership for their predicament – they are simply confirming what systematic violence does to victims. The MDC leaders were only exercising their democratic rights – there is nothing abnormal about attending a meeting, be it for prayers or politics. What is unusual and unlawful is to deny people that legitimate right. The critics are victims themselves, who have accepted their fate and now try to make sense of the other’s unusual and otherwise irrational and unlawful behaviour.
I am not sure how those who have killed Gift Tandare and brutally assaulted the others sleep at night just as I wondered all those years back, when the boys in the village tortured those hapless eaglets, how it was that they were able to sleep at night.
I do not know how the others see it; men like President Mbeki in South Africa, President Mogae in Botswana, President Guebuza in Mozambique, President Kikwete in Tanzania, President Pohamba in Namibia, President Mwanawasa in Zambia; perhaps they too, like the big boys who watched and did nothing to stop the brutal boys from torturing and executing the defenceless eaglets, feel it is not their business to intervene and stop it.
I am aware of humankind’s capacity for cruelty – but are we not also complicit when we do nothing stop those of our species from doing harm to those that are defenceless? What I know is that, part of the guilt that I have carried since the day of the torture of the eaglets, is because I too felt a sense of shame and carried a share of the guilt; the collective guilt at not having done anything to stop the mindless brutality that I witnessed day.
Yes, they were only birds, but they had done nothing wrong, except to exercise their right to live, as nature had prescribed!
Dr Magaisa can be contacted at email@example.com
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