By The Times (UK)
EVERY school day Tanaka Rutsito drove a minibus through a busy residential suburb on the edge of downtown Harare, navigated a meandering route to collect primary school pupils dressed in grey uniforms and floppy sun hats, and delivered them to class.
But since a strike and street demonstrations triggered by a government-ordered rise in fuel prices, and a brutal crackdown by Zimbabwe’s notorious military, Rutsito’s world has come apart.
“It was about 12 o’clock on Tuesday when I was walking back [from work] and I saw the men in the road. They were burning tyres and putting stones out to block people from going into town,” Rutsito, 42, said of the protests against the government.
He knew it spelt trouble, and quickly headed home to his wife and two children, aged ten and three. “At about 4pm, people started running past my house shouting ‘masoja, masoja!’ [soldiers, soldiers!] and we went inside and hid. It went very quiet for a while but then there was screaming from nearby houses.”
Then the soldiers started to try to break down his door. “I know you can hear people crying today but there is no funeral. Come out,” shouted one of the troops before kicking the door so hard that the family’s tiny three-room house shook.
Rutsito’s wife, Sharon, decided to open it before it was broken, expecting as a woman to be treated more leniently. “A soldier with a face-mask came inside. He had a rifle,” recalled Rutsito.
Dressed in combat kit with foliage in the net of his helmet, he slapped Mrs Rutsito twice across the face before demanding to know where her husband was. I came out, and the children followed me crying,” Rutsito told The Times in a trembling voice.
The soldiers then set about beating Rutsito with a length of stiff rubber called a sjambok, a former favourite of South Africa’s notorious apartheid police. Its thicker part bruises but the thinner tail tends to cut into the skin.
“My children were screaming. They hit me a few times, and then took us away,” Rutsito said. He and his wife, along with about 200 other locals, mostly men but also boys and teenagers, were taken to where the road had been blocked and lectured by the soldiers on disrupting traffic. The beatings started again, this time with wooden batons and bicycle chains.
The terrified group was then marched up a nearby wooded hill to a military post. They were told to stay there until 10pm or risk being killed by the soldiers watching over them. Yet the thought of his young children, including his three-year-old son, left alone at home was too much and Rutsito, his wife, and several others managed to slip away as the sun set.
“My son, Admire, was in shock. He had a high fever and was shaking uncontrollably. We were all in pain and so scared but had to stay in our house. Admire was sick for 24 hours or so. Didn’t eat for two days. Really, my family is damaged now,” he said.
Rutsito is one of thousands of victims of state-sponsored violence including shootings, reported rapes, beatings and arrests ordered while President Mnangagwa was out of the country trying to drum up foreign investment from Moscow and elsewhere.
The Zimbabwean president was forced to abandon an appearance at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland where he intended to tell the audience that Zimbabwe was open for business.
Instead, amid the chaos, he was due back home last night, a week after he appeared on state television to announce a 150 per cent increase in fuel prices, putting the price of a litre of diesel up to $3.11, making it among the most expensive in the world.
Drivers and unions responded with calls to stay away from work and protests began, not just against rising fuel prices, but against a far wider economic malaise. The hike is likely to exacerbate inflation, now running at 31 per cent a month, and there have been growing shortages of food and imports amid a dearth of foreign currency to pay for them.
For many the crackdown is reminiscent of, or worse than, the darkest days under his predecessor Robert Mugabe, when the economy was wrecked by hyper-inflation and political opponents were brutally suppressed.
Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s former strongman vice-president, ousted his nonagenarian boss in 2017, despite accusations of brutality including of genocide in the early 1980s. His reward initially was popular goodwill and forgiveness from the international community.
This has now been almost entirely eroded by his failure to deliver promises of economic reform including stamping out corruption, creating a viable business environment and restoring the political and social freedoms that had disappeared under Mugabe.
As angry citizens took to the streets after the fuel price hike, which Manangagwa argued was needed to reduce reliance on a key import, gangs of men blocked roads and there were reports of looting and vandalism.
The government, headed in Mnangawa’s absence by the vice-president, Constantine Chiwenga, responded by unleashing the soldiers into residential areas across the country.
To try to tame the demonstrations the government has switched off the internet. Initially it was just social media which went down to prevent, the government said, a few troublemakers from fomenting chaos. Then the entire internet was turned off, and has yet to be restored.
That has hampered reporting of the punishments meted out by soldiers, but the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum has detailed multiple abductions, beatings and torture of activists and charity leaders, many of whom are now in hiding.
The local Association of Doctors for Human Rights wrote that its members had treated 68 gunshot wounds, of which 17 were life-threatening. Local media have confirmed 12 deaths, though indications are that this figure will rise once normal communications are restored in the country.
Francis Lovemore, director of Counselling Services Unit, a local charity, told The Times that the events were unprecedented in Zimbabwe and the worst since massacres committed in the 1980s in the Matabele region by troops at a time when Managagwa was minister of state for national security under Mugabe.
“This is the worst period on record of soldiers harming civilians. In terms of gunshot wounds, this is the highest number we’ve seen since the Gukurahundi [Matabele] massacres in the 1980s. We are still getting anecdotal reports coming in from across the country including in rural areas and we certainly haven’t captured everything,” Dr Lovemore said.
State media reported at the weekend that more than 600 people have been arrested and all but minors have been denied bail.
Beatrice Mtetwa, a prominent human rights lawyer, said that legal professionals were considering withdrawing their services.
She told journalists assembled outside Harare magistrates’ court that “there is an orchestrated, deliberate attempt to deny anyone associated with the shutdown their basic rights”, adding that the volumes and pace of proceedings meant justice was being denied to almost all the accused.
Meanwhile the government is in denial, blaming the internet shutdown on an overwhelmed network, and the military brutality on criminals dressed in stolen army fatigues.