May 29, 2011
Books of The Times
Where Dissidents Are the Prey, and Horror Is a Weapon
By Michiko Kakutani (May 23, 2011)
An authoritarian government willing to use the most brutal means to hold on to power; a dictator whose thugs have murdered, tortured, imprisoned or intimidated tens of thousands of civilians; and individuals who have risked their lives simply to exercise their most fundamental rights — this is the state of affairs not only in Libya today, but also in Zimbabwe, which has suffered the ravages of more than 30 years under the autocratic rule of President Robert Mugabe.
In his chilling new book, “The Fear,” the journalist Peter Godwin gives readers an unsparing account of the horrors that Mr. Mugabe’s regime has inflicted on the people of Zimbabwe. During his three decades in office the country’s economy has tanked: agricultural production has plummeted, unemployment and food shortages have multiplied, inflation has soared, and much of the country’s middle class has fled. AIDS cases have exploded, and medicine and medical help are in increasingly short supply.
Hopes that Mr. Mugabe’s days as president might actually be numbered were dashed in the weeks leading up to a runoff election in June 2008, when supporters of the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change came under violent attack, and Mr. Tsvangirai announced his withdrawal as a presidential candidate, saying he could not ask people to come out to vote for him “when that vote would cost them their lives.”
A so-called power-sharing government has been in place since 2008, but Mr. Mugabe has remained firmly in control; more than a quarter of his opponents in Parliament have been arrested, according to the Movement for Democratic Change and human-rights lawyers. Despite rumors about his health, Mr. Mugabe declared last week that he intended to run for president this year at the age of 87, and political violence is reportedly already increasing.
In “The Fear” Mr. Godwin chronicles the savagery of Mr. Mugabe’s regime in harrowing detail. Some observers, he notes, call what has happened in Zimbabwe “politicide”: “As genocide is an attempt to wipe out an ethnic group, so politicide is the practice of wiping out an entire political movement.”
The murders carried out by the president’s supporters and riot police around the time of the 2008 election, Mr. Godwin says, were “accompanied by torture and rape on an industrial scale, committed on a catch-and-release basis”: “When those who survive, terribly injured, limp home, or are carried or pushed in wheelbarrows, or on the backs of pickup trucks, they act like human billboards, advertising the appalling consequences of opposition to the tyranny, bearing their gruesome political stigmata. And in their home communities, their return causes ripples of anxiety to spread.” The people have given this time of violence and suffering its own name, chidudu — meaning “the fear.”
In reporting this book Mr. Godwin traveled back to the country where he grew up, despite the dangers: “not only from Mugabe’s banning of Western journalists, but also because I was once declared an enemy of the state, accused of spying.” He uses his intimate knowledge of Zimbabwe to introduce readers to opposition leaders, church authorities, foreign diplomats and ordinary people who have ended up in hospitals or as refugees — beaten, mutilated, raped and terrorized, their houses burned to the ground.
This volume lacks the intimacy of the author’s two affecting memoirs about Zimbabwe (“Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa” and “When a Crocodile Eats the Sun”), and it sometimes assumes a little too much familiarity on the part of the lay reader with that country’s tragic history. But it remains a document that should be read by anyone interested in the sacrifices that people are willing to make for the sake of democracy — a timely document, indeed, given the democratic uprisings taking place this spring in northern Africa and the Middle East. Not only is “The Fear” a valuable work of testimony — filled with firsthand accounts of witnesses to the most horrific crimes — but it is also a haunting testament to those survivors’ courage and determination.
Among the ordinary citizens depicted in these pages is Tichanzii Gandanga, who worked for the Movement for Democratic Change. Mr. Godwin reports that Mr. Gandanga was kidnapped by thugs he believes were members of President Mugabe’s spying agency, lashed with whips made from tire rubber and kicked in the face. His tormentors then dragged him naked into the road and ran over his legs twice with their car.
Denias Dombo, a farmer who also worked as a district organizing secretary for the movement, Mr. Godwin writes, watched as Mugabe supporters burned down his house, and he was then assaulted with rocks, iron bars and heavy sticks. According to Mr. Godwin, one leg was broken, an arm was shattered and several ribs fractured. His means of making a living, his plow and cultivator, were stolen; his cattle killed. He was unable to find his wife and children.
Dadirai Chipiro, a former nursery school teacher and the wife of an electoral organizer for the Movement for Democratic Change, did not survive an attack by government agents. They hacked off her right hand and both her feet, Mr. Godwin says, dragged her back into her house and set it on fire with a gasoline bomb.
The litany of suffering in this book is devastating, and the accounts that Mr. Godwin has collected, as the saying goes in Zimbabwe, are “just the ears of the hippo.” There are many more stories and much more pain right below the surface. Thousands of people, he says, have simply gone missing: “Bodies are being found bobbing at the spillway of dams; other are discovered in the bush, dumped by their murderers, miles and miles from where they were abducted. In some particularly gruesome cases, the victims have been castrated, their testicles stuffed in their mouths, or their eyes gouged out. Many will never be found. Some 10,000 people have been tortured. Twenty thousand have had their houses burned down — up to 200,000 are now displaced.”
As for prison conditions in the country, Mr. Godwin contends, they are miserable — another index “by which to measure the depths of depravity of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.” A freelance saw miller named Shane Kidd, who was thrown in prison after renting a room to the Movement for Democratic Change to use as an office, recounts in these pages how policemen would spray freezing water and sometimes throw buckets of urine through the prison bars, dousing the prisoners and their thin blankets and leaving the cell floors ankle-deep in water.
The opposition leader Roy Bennett reports that in Mutare Remand Prison rations had been cut to one meal from three, and that many inmates suffer from pellagra, a severe vitamin deficiency that was common in Soviet labor camps. Without outside food or medicine, Mr. Godwin writes, “the average inmate is dead within a year.”
One of the most haunting stories in this volume is that of Chenjerai Mangezo, who was nearly beaten to death after winning as a movement candidate for a rural district council. Though his body was completely immobilized in plaster, Mr. Godwin says, Mr. Mangezo insisted on attending the swearing-in ceremony, and he was driven there lying on foam mattresses heaped in the back of a pickup truck. He has continued to attend council meetings, sitting alongside some of the very Mugabe supporters who oversaw his beating.
What, besides courage, has enabled Mr. Mangezo to sit there with his persecutors? “Is it fatalism, a quality that Westerners see in Africans?” Mr. Godwin asks. “Westerners often mistake African endurance, and the lack of self-pity, for fatalism. No, I think the other quality in Chenjerai Mangezo is patience, a dogged tenacity. He hasn’t given up on getting justice. But he will wait for it.”
“People like Chenjerai,” he goes on, “are the real asine mabvi — the men without knees. Not only were his legs covered by plaster casts for months, but he has refused to kneel, refused to prostrate himself before the dictatorship, whatever the consequences.
A version of this review appeared in print on May 24, 2011, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Where Dissidents Are the Prey, and Horror Is a Weapon.