Hell Is a Real Place


This is the story of a woman in Zimbabwe. She is not one of the white farmers being extracted from their land and homes by President Robert Mugabe and the veterans of the 1980 war for independence, who are in the front lines of the takeovers. This woman is black and is being punished for her support of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the leading opposition party.

Her tormentors are members of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), which has been in power since independence was won under Mugabe’s leadership. I learned of her story from a June 20, 2002, report by the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition—a wide range of what we call civil rights groups fighting for a “civil society.” Among them: trade unions, women’s rights organizations, students, and the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum. Leading the report is a letter of confirmation signed by Desmond Tutu, archbishop emeritus, Cape Town, South Africa—a world-renowned paladin of the anti-apartheid movement.

This thoroughly documented and voluminous Zimbabwe Report contains many horror stories. This one is “Case 2 and 3: Baby 4 months old, and mother of child: interview with mother . . . Date of Incident: from November 2001, and still continuing in April 2002.”

“B is four months old. When he was only eight days old . . . he was taken from his mother at midnight by 12 war veterans and held upside down by his ankles. The war veterans said he was a whip and they would use him to beat others. They slapped him on the face and all over the body and said that he should die because he was ‘an MDC property.’ The mother was gagged and beaten.”

While she was eight months pregnant with B, the mother was attacked by war veterans who kicked her in the groin and lower abdomen “until she bled profusely from her vagina.” She couldn’t go for treatment at any clinic in her district because “she is among those blacklisted as an MDC supporter.” (An interesting use of “blacklisted.”)

Refused health care throughout her pregnancy because of her pariah status, she delivered by herself at home. She has had no postnatal care. Her child “has also received no medical attention whatsoever—his birth is officially unrecorded and he has received no immunizations.”

In hiding and on the run, she is “in severe pain” and “needs urgent specialist attention for her back and needs to see a urologist” for problems that started “from her beating when eight months pregnant.”

The entry of this case in the Zimbabwe Report closes with “The history is remarkable as to the violence against a newborn baby; but otherwise it is in agreement with other testimonies of reprisals against MDC supporters.”

There is a foreword to the report by Pius A. Ncube, archbishop of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe: “In the past two months, I have known of a number of persons who have died of hunger right here in my city. We have seen police and militia threaten, intimidate, and sometimes attack unarmed civilian protesters. We have spoken out, only to be threatened and attacked ourselves. Writing a report such as this one by the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition carries great risks. Those risks must be borne by us all if we are to find a more peaceful path into the future.”

The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in New York and Washington has distributed this report to members of Congress and other groups. But while there has been considerable coverage in newspapers, though not on television, of what is happening to the families of the foreclosed white farmers, the desperate condition of huge numbers of black Zimbabweans is largely ignored.

In his letter that prefaces the report, Archbishop Tutu writes: “The hard facts on the ground in Zimbabwe, so well compiled in this report, suggest an alarming array of policies and practices that may be leading the country to a catastrophic future. . . . The ongoing political violence . . . must be brought to an end. The threatening famine, caused in part by government lands policy, will make things even worse.”

While a critical mass of anger and indignation in this country helped end South African apartheid, there is scarcely any awareness here of the facts on the bloody ground contained in this message in the Zimbabwe Report:

“Since January 2002, 57 people have been killed, 26 ‘disappeared,’ and more than 450 tortured. Thousands have been forced to flee their home areas. Ninety percent of the violence has been perpetrated by ZANU-PF supporters or State Security agents, with encouragement from leading members of the government.”

And in the August 25 Sunday Telegraph in London, Christina Lamb quoted Tony Reeler, clinical director of the Amani Trust, based in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. The Trust monitors and treats victims of torture and other human rights abuses. Tony Reeler says:

“We’re seeing an enormous prevalence of rape, and enough cases to say it’s being used by the State as a political tool, with women and girls being raped because they are wives, girlfriends, or daughters of political activists. There are also horrific cases of girls as young as 12 or 13 being taken off to militia camps, used and abused and kept in forced concubinage. But I suspect, as with Bosnia, the real extent of what is happening is going to take a hell of a long time to come out.” (Supporters of the Amani Trust include the UN’s Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture and the Swedish Red Cross.)

Why, in this country, are there only whispers, if that, from most civil rights activists and organizations, the clergy of all colors that finally awoke to the slavery and mass rapes in Sudan, editorial writers, women’s rights groups, and such trombones of the people as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton?

In Congress, Donald Payne of New Jersey is involved, as he has been for many years about slavery in Sudan, but what of his colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus and the white human rights champions on both sides of the aisle?

For information: Lorna Davidson, Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, 333 Seventh Avenue, 13th floor, New York, NY 10001; 212-845-5251; We’re supposed to be fighting a war on terrorism, right? By the way, Zimbabwe is a proud member of the United Nations Human Rights Commission—along with Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and Sudan.

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