BULAWAYO – For years, Bulawayo residents have been known to be easy-going when it comes to nationwide anti-government protests compared to Harare, which has somewhat emerged as the citadel in expressing grievances on national political issues.
Some theories have been flying in the past that residents of Bulawayo are too timid to engage in acts of anti-government protests as the Gukurahundi massacres, where an estimated over 20 000 innocent civilians in the region were wiped out by the North Korea-trained Fifth Brigade, is still fresh in many a mind.
But to the contrary, Bulawayo has in the past engaged in various protests but not of the magnitude recently witnessed. Perhaps it highlights the depth of the problem at hand, they led from the front, staging an unpredictable heavy and massive protest though characterised by violence, looting and burning of supermarkets.
The residents burnt tyres, barricaded roads, looted shops and burnt vehicles and other properties as part of showing their anger against deepening economic crisis in the country. A cop was killed in the city by anti-government demonstrators.
However, when they thought government had heard their grievances, little did they know that the worst was to come as heavily-armed soldiers were soon to be deployed in the second largest city.
At first, their presence was interpreted as the now-common scare tactics to maintain peace and put down any lawlessness.
But alas, they were wrong!
Many thought the soldiers would just be in the city for a few days, but again alas they were wrong.
The soldiers have since last week been on a rampage, particularly in the high density suburbs where they have caused mayhem and unrest, embarking on night raids, beating and torturing innocent civilians they accuse of looting, burning shops and killing a cop.
It did not only end there as soldiers also went on to beat kombi drivers, touts and vendors forcing them to review their prices downwards.
As if that is not enough, soldiers have created a curfew where anyone seen moving after 8pm is subjected to torture in a move that has heightened fears among residents if freedom will ever return to the once-free city.
Soldiers in trucks and some travelling on foot have remained a common sight.
The crackdown by soldiers has continued unabated even after President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who replaced Robert Mugabe after a soft coup in November 2017 and promised to break with his strong-arm politics, promised this week to investigate security services’ actions against protesters.
Rights groups say a dozen people have died in the unrest, though police put the figure at three.
For the past week, a number of civic society in the city have been taking turns to visit the affected residents to offer much needed help to most of those who could not access medical treatment due to the prevailing rising costs of drugs and non-commitment to the medical practitioners at the government hospitals who have been working two days a week.
On the other hand, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) and the Legal Resource Centre Foundation have been out in full force helping over 500 suspects who have been arrested in the aftermath of the protests.
The Daily News on Sunday paid a visit to a number of victims in such suburbs as Nkulumane, Sizinda Tshabalala, Mabuthweni and Iminyela where the army reportedly wreaked havoc.
Gory sights of various forms of injuries characterised the victims with fear among residents written all over the face. It took a lot of persuasion to convince the residents to grant this paper interviews.
“It’s bad, my son was thoroughly beaten by members of the army who came here forcing their way inside my house in the middle of the night,” said an elderly woman who refused to be named fearing she might be targeted again.
“They said they wanted boys from the age of 14 and men below 45 as they wanted to discipline them. They forced them to lie down on their stomachs and got thoroughly beaten and threatened for ‘allegedly killing a police officer’. As you can see my husband and my son are both nursing injuries,” said the mother of two, pointing at her son who had a broken arm in plaster.
A tour of the suburbs revealed serious day and night torture by the army, in a development that, analysts described as a clear move to silence and intimidate the masses from engaging in anti-government protests.
A consortium of civic society groups and churches going under the tag Matabeleland Collective this week expressed their concern at the way the state has abused the army in unleashing violence against its citizen.
“It is sad to note that the death of the police officer, hooliganism, rape, theft and mayhem led in part to deployment of the military armed with live ammunition within our city ready to shoot or beat first and never ask questions or investigate for true criminal behaviour,” Matabeleland Collective spokesperson Jeni Williams said.
She said the crackdown was reminiscent of the Gukurahundi era.
“The Matabeleland Collective take full cognisance that the level of social unrest was only surpassed by the Gukurahundi campaign of early 1980s where high density
suburbs were cordoned off and police and soldiers went door-to-door beating and arresting people.”
The consortium, which has 66 members from this region, also noted that over a thousand have been subjected to the door-to-door campaign by the army.
“We estimate that more than 1 000 residents were subjected to this treatment despite there being two people in remand prison charged with the death of the police officer. Toddlers, sisters and mother watched their male relatives beaten in horror.
“While they went door-to-door in these suburbs, they also targeted anyone along the way found outdoors after 7pm as if there was an official curfew,” Williams said.
The unrelenting crackdown which has continued unabated has irked the residents, and various stakeholders.
“We strongly condemn the arbitrary arrests of residents by the police and army. More than 500 residents have so far been arrested with many of them being picked up from their homes at night and some have actually ran away and abandoned their homes,” Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association (Bpra) acting coordinator Emmanuel Ndlovu said.
“Unless the socio-economic concerns of the masses are addressed, the arbitrary arrests and beatings will not solve anything,” he said.
Bulawayo mayor Solomon Mguni said he was disturbed by the arbitrary arrests and militarisation of the streets.
“We wish to condemn the wanton harassment and dragnet arrests of residents by the security services in the name of clamping down on illegal protests. We are disturbed by the militarisation of the streets of Bulawayo.
“We condemn State-sponsored violence, harassment of the elderly and children through indiscriminate firing of teargas volley, arrests and assaults. We urge the government to investigate this unprecedented level of misconduct by the security services.”
Zimbabwe National Army spokesperson, Alphios Makotore, was however adamant that the soldiers were not involved in any brutal attacks on civilians, instead saying those involved were rogue elements.
“The Zimbabwe National Army has noted with concern allegations of misconduct and acts of violence by people purporting to be members of the organisation,” he said.
“The actions by these bogus elements have subsequently put the image of the organisation into disrepute,” Makotore added, urging residents to report violations to military police.
Zimbabwe’s Human Rights Commission has accused security forces of systematic torture. The opposition says it fears soldiers are able to shoot and kill without being held accountable, after an official inquiry said the army shot civilians to quell post-election violence last August.
Respected lawyer David Coltart yesterday said the deployment of the troops against civilians was worrisome and unjustifiable.
“The fundamental difference between what happened this year and what happened in 1983 is that the crackdown was confined to Bulawayo and its surrounding areas whereas now it’s a countrywide operation,” Coltart said.
“The other difference is that the government then had more authority to do what it did in that they created a state of emergency which allowed certain fundamental rights to be suspended by the government by deploying the troops but now there is no state of emergency … there is no justification of the deployment particularly now that the unrest has come to an end,” he said.
Coltart emphasised that what is currently unfolding was unlawful and unconstitutional as these were clear crimes against humanity coupled with a systematic persecution of the civilian population by the military.