Kubatana.net ~ an online community of Zimbabwean activists

Torture in the tail lights

TOP del.icio.us

As part of the International Human Rights Day commemorations, Eyes on Zimbabwe, a project of the Open Society Institute, will launch a new report – “We have degrees in violence” – today. In collaboration with the Bellvue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, the report shares the testimony both of individuals who were subject to torture or political violence this year, and of health professionals and human rights advocates in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

It is systematic. It is not random. It is not the use of torture by police who are overzealous. It is not that there was a demonstration and things got out of hand and this is what happened. This is not the case. As we speak now, there is still a stream of people who are specifically being targeted.
- Dr. Reginald Matchaba-Hove, University of Zimbabwe College of Health Sciences

The report finds both physical and psychological scarring as a result of political violence and torture, consistent with findings from other local and international investigations. A recent investigation by the Sunday Telegraph (UK) for example, claims torture is Robert Mugabe’s election weapon. Zimbabwe’s protracted economic crisis has left an estimated one in three people suffering from mental health problems. Between the political violence and the economic hardships, the long term implications of this mental health deterioration are significant. Even with the most perfect legislation and respect for human rights, are free and fair elections really possible in just three or four months time, given our current state?

The document uses vivid evidence and first hand accounts of 24 interviewees who have experienced torture or political violence in the past year, at the hands of agents of the state.

For example, RP, a 35 year old male who works for the MDC, was beaten at the police station on 11 March 2007. Describing this experience, he says:

They started beating me all over my body. They beat me on the head, on the ribs, on the shoulder – everywhere, all over the body, with sticks and iron bars. Some were jumping on my ribs to the extent that I passed out three times. Then they told me: “You must go and tell the MDC supporters that the only president is Mugabe. Tsvangirai is not the president.”

The intimidation has not been limited to MDC activists or position holders. According to the report, “ER, a 42-year old teacher from Bulawayo, who holds no formal position with the MDC, was harassed in 2006 because of a writing assignment he gave his students:”

I wrote a comprehension passage for the students, where I described how the main lion is eventually kicked out of his pride. The reason is that his muscles will be weak, his teeth worn out, but the voice remains sharp.

Even though the assignment was based in fiction and metaphor, he was called in for questioning by the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) and fired from his school for insulting President Robert Mugabe. He relocated to another district where he was abducted and beaten by CIO agents.

The report also describes the experiences of some of the Zimbabweans who have fled to South Africa in the hopes of greater safety. Whilst many of those interviewed say they feel safer in South Africa, the ordeal of sneaking into the country can itself be a traumatic experience, and once there many fear being deported. The volume of Zimbabweans leaving the country for South Africa for economic reasons means that many “legitimate” asylum seekers are treated with suspicion, and their stories are not necessarily believed.

In addition to the physical injuries from torture and political violence, many of those interviewed also demonstrated psychological effects such as depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), demoralisation, and fear. These symptoms, in particular fear, impact not only on the immediate victims of violence but their surrounding community and the country as a whole as well. The fear then silences both the victims and the broader society, further entrenching the symptoms and making it more difficult for those who have been traumatised to heal emotionally and psychologically.

Violence isn’t necessarily the most mature response to violence, but it is often what people turn to. A conversation the other day with Nancy Pearson of the New Tactics Project at the Center for Victims of Torture made me wonder – if survivors of abuse often themselves grow up into abusers, are there parallels for survivors of torture? Are those who have been brutalised more likely to brutalise others? We have seen the MDC turning to violence in dealing with the Lucia Matibenga issue. How do we protect the country from violence spreading deeper and further, regardless of who is in government?

Events of the past seven years have damaged Zimbabwe in ways both obvious and more subtle. How we recover from this will be a key determinant in the country’s future. Reports like “We have degrees in violence” are important for illuminating the path we’ve been on. But increasingly I find myself wanting the documents and discussions that also shine a spotlight on the road ahead, suggesting how pull ourselves out of this mess, and helping us to map out the future we want to have.

Comments are closed.