With the government acknowledging reports of rapes committed by security forces, could this be the beginning of the end of impunity among the state-sponsored armed forces?
Shortly after a court-ordered re-opening of the Internet, which the Zimbabwean government had shut down for close to a week during January protests triggered by a fuel price hike, a prominent local pastor tweeted that he had information about 23 women and girls who had been raped by security forces during a brutal clampdown following the protests.
The government’s reaction was to dismiss the claims as fabrication, but in no time an avalanche of reports about rapes, beatings and other acts of gross human rights violations started emerging from other veritable sources, including the state-funded Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission. It soon became hard for the government to remain in denial mode without losing what could be left of its own credibility. In response, the government conceded that the attacks could have happened and promised to investigate the allegations.
Reports from most of Harare’s high-density suburbs pointed to a well-coordinated operation. An unofficial curfew was in place under which those found outdoors were severely beaten, while homes were broken into and occupants also savagely assaulted. It was during this crackdown that most of the rapes were allegedly committed.
Police spokesperson Charity Charamba initially denied the reports of abuse of citizens by the security forces, but after President Emmerson Mnangagwa acknowledged video footage of a beating, the official line changed and Charamba invited victims to approach the police to file reports.
It is this casual approach by state apparatus that raised the ire of human rights activists who see rape and state-sanctioned violence against citizens as the new norm in Zimbabwe.
Human rights lawyer and former legislator Jessie Majome, said members of the security forces couldn’t be expected to investigate their own and effectively deliver justice to ordinary citizens.
“My view is that the only way of ensuring an ear and justice for victims of army and police brutality is the constitutional Independent Complaints Commission that is provided in Section 20 of the Constitution, which has still not been set up,” Majome said. She added that in the interim the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission and the Gender Commission, together with the police, could improvise.
“It’s absurd for them to expect victims to walk into a police station and report the police and the army!” said Maureen Kademaunga, a civic leader and human rights activist.
It is the first time that issue of rape by Zimbabwean security forces has come to the fore. It is a subject that has been kept under wraps for decades, despite reports of police violations as early as the liberation war days in the 1970s, right through the Gukurahundi genocide years of the 1980s, to the 2008 violence.
Educationist Fay Chung, in her book Re-living the Second Chimurenga, particularly captured rapes that she says were rife during the war. Chung ran schools in the war camps in Mozambique where Robert Mugabe’s ZANLA forces operated.
Judith Todd, the daughter of former Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) prime minister Sir Garfield Todd, in a poignant book Through The Darkness reveals how she was raped by Agrippa Mutambara, a brigadier in the army, in 1983. She said it took place after she had presented evidence of the Gukurahundi genocide that had just started in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces to then army commander Solomon Mujuru.
During the Gukurahundi genocide – during which more than 20,000 people from the Ndebele tribal minority in the southwestern Midlands and Matabeleland provinces were killed – tens of thousands of women and girls were allegedly raped by security forces. Breaking the Silence, a Gukurahundi report published by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace together with the Legal Resources Foundation, highlights systematic genocidal rape and the effects that the communities still feel more than three decades later.
Most of these rapes were corroborated by a detailed 2010 study of the Research and Advocacy Unit, a civic organisation, on politically motivated rapes in Zimbabwe, which showed that rapes had developed into a form of culture in the Zimbabwean society. The study was done in collaboration with the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights and the Doors of Hope Development Trust, a self-help organisation consisting of survivors of politically motivated rape.
When the latest reports started surfacing, the police and the army held a joint press conference at which they gave what was generally dismissed as a “laughable explanation” for the violence. They claimed that some army and police deserters had stolen uniforms that they wear when they go around committing the crimes. The explanation drew derision from most citizens.
“The military has just finished their press conference,” announced New York Times journalist, Hopewell Chin’ono. “They are blaming military violence on deserters and criminals. They are saying that these deserters stole uniforms and they have given retired army guys an ultimatum to return uniforms.
“These naughty deserters also! So they left with AK47s and bullets also, and army trucks? Naughty deserters!”
The Platform for Concerned Citizens (PPC), a civic society organisation, issued a statement condemning what is described as state-sponsored lawlessness.
“Since 14 January 2019, the accelerating crisis in the country has created a lawless state inconsistent with human rights and dignity,” the PPC said in its January 22 statement.
“The economic and fuel crisis precipitated protests from many sectors which resulted in an unprecedented reaction from all branches of state security, leading to a scale of shootings, beatings, abductions and abuse of the justice system not seen in Zimbabwe since the 1980s.”
The organisation highlighted that the incidents of lawlessness by security forces were
compounded by “the credible evidence that the violence, that has been both systematic and widespread, with enormous numbers of citizens tortured, conforms to the definition of crimes against humanity”.
After six people were gunned down in central Harare on August 1 last year in broad daylight by soldiers, some of who were captured on video, the government has made a show of investigating the killings. It set up a commission of inquiry which implicated the army and the police, but no one was prosecuted.
This casts a pall of doubt over Mnangagwa’s commitment to deliver justice to people that have been abused by the same security forces under the cover of darkness. Mnangagwa, who was a central player in most of the atrocities committed in Zimbabwe – having been Robert Mugabe’s right-hand man for four decades – claimed he was appalled by the latest abuses. However his critics quickly dismissed the reaction by the man nicknamed “the Crocodile” - because of his perceived cold ruthlessness - as “crocodile tears”.
Dewa Mavhinga, Human Rights Watch Southern Africa Director, said unpunished crimes of the past have created a sense of impunity in the security forces.
“Over the years, serious abuses and crimes against humanity that include rape committed by security forces have gone unpunished leading to impunity within the security forces and to further cycles of abuses,” Mavhinga told TRT World.
“To bring these abuses to an end the government must demonstrate its condemnation of these horrific crimes by ensuring independent and thorough investigations leading to arrests, trials and jailing of the culprits. Without justice and accountability the impunity will be entrenched and the abuses will likely continue.”
Members of the Zimbabwe’s security forces regularly participate in regional and international peacekeeping missions when back home they are terrorising the very citizens they exist to protect. Mavhinga thinks this hypocrisy should stop.
During the 1979 Lancaster House conference in London that gave birth to an independent Zimbabwe, the spokesman for the nationalists’ side, the late Eddison Zvobgo, a Harvard-trained lawyer, expounded his vision for a new Zimbabwe, stating: “We do not want to create a socio-legal order in the country in which people are petrified, in which people go to bed having barricaded their doors and their windows because someone belonging to the Special Branch of the police will break into their houses. This is what we have been fighting against.”
Exactly 40 years later, this is what many Zimbabweans are living through.
“Tonight, in our country, children are going to sleep fearful about the shouts in the street, the breaking doors, the screams of people in the street, maybe even witnessing terrible violence, even violence against their parents,” said Tony Reeler, a lawyer and clinical psychologist who has worked with several generations of victims of torture and abuse in Zimbabwe.
“Tomorrow they go out, with fear in their souls about the safety of the world and whom they can trust.”