BSR: Zimbabwe – Silence of the birds


The bird was silent today. It was caged, it could not fly. It could not even sing.

The Zimbabwe bird is the national emblem of the nation, drawing its origins from the stone ruins famously known as the Great Zimbabwe, a reminder of a more glorious past. But it didn’t fly today. It didn’t sing.

Today, the Government of Zimbabwe ordered a shutdown of the Internet and Social Media. This meant the outside world was unable to get first-hand information, in real time, regarding the situation in the country. It brought much anxiety for Zimbabweans abroad. What is going on at home? Are families safe? What about friends? And the rest of the citizens?

It was grim. It is still bleak. As we go to sleep tonight or wake up tomorrow, no-one outside the country knows what is happening there.

Bad things happen in darkness and as Zimbabweans know from experience, many bad things happen in darkness and under the cover of silence. We have a long history of state-sponsored brutality under the guise of enforcing law and order, much of it under the cover of silence.

For citizens from Matebeleland and the Midlands it’s another déjà vu moment. They have travelled this road before. Soldiers coming under the cover of darkness. Abducting people, many never to be seen again, while the world remained mute. This is all-too familiar. That was Gukurahundi. The rest of the country, and the world wake up later, when it was convenient.

Many more remember the 2008 violence. The story of Tonderai Ndira brings tears to the eyes whenever it is told. They came in the early hours of the morning, grabbed him from his family in his under-clothing. The next time his father saw him, he was a silent corpse, mutilated beyond recognition.

That military operation left more than 200 dead and thousands more wounded and homeless. The same characters who commanded this force are in charge now, as leaders of the nation. It was all piled on Mugabe, rightly so but they were his enforcers. The region molly-coddled the perpetrators, forced the victims into a coalition and no-one was ever held accountable.

On August 1 2018, the same military was deployed into the streets of Harare. The operation left six dead and 35 others wounded. Shot down in cold blood. A commission of inquiry was set up. It performed a shoddy white-washing job. No-one has been held accountable. Not even a single word of apology. It’s par for the course. But still, some said let’s give them a chance. They said they were genuine.

What is happening now is not new. The tragedy is not a novel phenomenon. Force and brutality are the instruments of choice. For them, retribution is an ordinary response. No scruples at all. All part of a hideous inheritance.

The colonial regime had a law to protect soldiers who committed atrocities. The post-independence regime kept that law. Those who hurt others were routinely granted amnesties. Or pardoned when found guilty by the courts. In many cases, never prosecuted at all. Nothing better to fertilise impunity. This is the grim harvest. They bludgeon, they kill and they get away with it.

The State has now resorted to extraordinary measures, without even declaring a State of Emergency. They include the following:

  • military deployment

  • detention of civilians

  • shootings, beatings, inhuman and degrading treatment and torture. People have been killed in cold blood

  • door-to-door search & seizure of individuals and abductions

  • shutdown of the Internet and social media to prevent free flow of information. There is an information blackout

  • Propaganda, blaming the opposition and civil society groups for what are plain opposition protests

In this atmosphere of darkness and secrecy, the State can do and is doing a lot of bad things to citizens without the outside world getting a full picture as things happen.

Back in August and on Monday, it was easier to follow events as they happened due to the glare of international media and social media. People told their stories in pictures and videos. It was there for all to see. Now, 6 months after the election, with the world media long gone, it’s a dark and secretive world. It’s dangerous, brutal and unforgiving.

As ever, human individual rights are among the casualties of repressive measures under the guise of law enforcement. The risk, as always, is the use of excessive and disproportionate force. In this case several rights are at risk: rights to life, personal security, free speech, access to information and the right to human dignity. They don’t care.

The Internet and social media blackout means millions of citizens have been silenced to the world. They cannot tell stories of their suffering. Their voices have been muted. It’s a calamity. A human-made calamity.

As stated in the last #BSR SADC, the international community and civil society have to remain alert and vigilant to what’s going on under the cover of the Internet shutdown in Zimbabwe. Bad things have happened before and bad things are happening now.

The world has many troubles but please do not forget the plight of Zimbabwe. Our president is away, far away, as the country burns. Those who receive him in Russia and old Soviet states probably don’t care. For them, it’s par for the course.

Next week, President Mnangagwa will be in Davos. Wining and dining with the world’s rich and famous. They will pontificate about how they want to save the world. But do they care? Will they even ask him tough questions regarding the plight of a home that he’s left burning? It’s a world that’s a billion dollars away from the ordinary Zimbabwean who yearns for just a bit of dignity.

They may have silenced the Zimbabwe bird for a bit. But they have not clipped its wings. It will fly again and it will probably find its voice again.

Meanwhile, those of us who can will continue to flap our wings as best as we can. And sing the songs of our brothers and sisters, of our mothers and fathers and the children who yearn for a different and better future.