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Duncan Campbell, Paul Lewis05 Jul 2008 06:55
It was the murder of his uncle two months ago that convinced a young prison officer called Shepherd Yuda that he should risk his own life to bring to the world a first-hand visual account of life in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe.
What he did not realise at the time was that he would also provide incontrovertible proof of exactly how Mugabe’s men rigged the votes to ensure his election.
As he shot his clandestine film, Yuda was aware that it might never be seen in the outside world and that his reward could be nothing more lasting than an unmarked grave in the Zimbabwean bush. By the time he and his family were safely out of Zimbabwe on Friday, Yuda had a record of how the votes have been stolen and how those who have dared to oppose Mugabe fear daily for their lives.
The film shows how he and his colleagues at Harare Central prison had to fill in their postal ballots in front of a Mugabe supporter, how voters had to pretend to be illiterate so an official would fill in their ballots for them, and how terrified Zimbabweans were using felt tip pens to colour their fingers to pretend they had voted, lest they be murdered by Zanu-PF gangs.
On April 13 this year, two weeks after the first round of the elections, Tapiwa Mobwandarika, was killed.
He was a former prison officer but also an outspoken opponent of Mugabe.
Thousands more have been severely beaten, many too frightened to go to hospital for treatment.
“I had never seen that kind of violence before,” said Yuda. “The impact has left a lot of orphans, it has left a lot of people displaced. You cannot expect that from your government. You expect that from a rebel group. How can a government that claimed to be democratically elected kill its people, murder its people, torture its people?
“I’ve been optimistic that Zimbabwe would be a better country, even though we were young after independence. But we have seen that Zimbabwe has been reduced to the worst country in the world because of violence. Now we have a government that is composed of people who don’t hesitate to kill innocent civilians.”
But what could a prison officer with a young family and living on wages of about $8 a month do to honour his uncle’s memory?
He decided that, with a secret camera, he could at least show the extent of the misery and brutality within his country as reflected in the prison service.
Yuda did not realise then that he would be privy to the cynical manipulation of the electoral process. His testimony, made for Guardian Films and broadcast on guardian.co.uk and BBC Newsnight on Friday night, shows how he and his prison colleagues had to fill in their ballots in front of Zanu-PF supporters. “This was the most difficult moment of my life,” he said of marking his cross beside the name of Mugabe. “This is a terrible moment.”
They had all been told that they had to use postal ballots which they then had to fill in surrounded by prison officials who checked their electoral register serial numbers. Superintendent Shambira, a war veteran and Mugabe supporter, checked how he had voted.
“Then he folded it and put it in the small envelope. He handed it over to me and said: seal it ... These people forced me to do [something] I have never done in my life.”
Yuda explained how the intimidation worked in government establishments. “In the prison service, we’ve got Zanu-PF militias that are known as ‘the green bombers’. These are the people who are getting privilege to get jobs—they get senior ranks to us. In this run-off election they were released to go to the rural areas, they were released to go in towns. They are the people causing violence, they are the people killing, they are the people murdering.”
Unaware that they are being filmed, his colleagues talk frankly. One is critical of South African President Thabo Mbeki: “The person who let us down, he did not want to come down hard on Mugabe and report accordingly. Instead, he went on about meaningless Pan-Africanism. I don’t know what interests he is representing.”
Another describes the state of the country: “We are starving. We can’t even feed our parents in the rural areas.” He notes defiantly that they are already suspected of having voted MDC. “I know some of our names are there but I want to see who is going to get it on with me and I will say that’s right—so what?”
Others discuss what is happening in Zimbabwe prior to the run-off election. “People are being killed, right now there is no work going on in the rural areas. It’s rally after rally,” says one. Another remarks: “During the war, there was no white person going and beating up people in their homes ... People are dying, the international community knows it, even [United States Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice has said Mugabe has declared war on his people.”
With his hidden camera, Yuda was also able to show Tendai Biti, the secretary-general of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), who was in jail on treason charges and is currently on bail awaiting trial. Biti, who faces the death penalty if convicted, is shown in leg-irons. Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu, leaders of Woza, Women of Zimbabwe Arise, who have been detained since May 28 after taking part in a peaceful protest, are shown in Chikirubi security prison.
‘You can’t read and write’
He explained how voters were told at a pro-Mugabe rally they must pretend to be illiterate. “They said we don’t mind if you are doctor, if you are a teacher, if you are a prison officer or if you hold any degrees in education. We don’t mind. When the day of voting comes, you go and tell the election agents that you can’t read and write.”
The film also shows a woman desperately colouring her finger purple because she had failed to register. “All of those who have not voted will be taken away and killed,” she says.
Yuda’s family, with whom he has now fled, also talk about the state of fear stalking the country. “Youths came and forced everyone to go to the rally so to protect yourself, you go,” says his wife.
“They said ‘we know there are some people who need to be beaten’ and I was so scared because I started thinking maybe they are talking of you because last time they were saying they want to kill you in front of people.”
He describes the effect on his children and how they feared for their mother’s life after she was forced to attend a Zanu-PF rally.
“When I opened the door [my daughters] were seated on the sofas. I asked: where is your mother? They said: ‘Dad! Dad! Dad!’ [I said] what’s wrong with you girls? [The girls said:] ‘Zanu-PF youths were here and they knocked our door, they said ‘Anybody here? Anybody here’. Then mum said ‘yes’. They said ‘can you come out’? Mum said ‘who are you’? They said ‘if you don’t come we will get inside and deal with you, let’s go to the rally’. My children were so shocked and they were instilled with fear. Then I said ‘so where is your mum?’. [The girls] said they had taken her to the Zanu-PF rally.”
One of his daughters recounts: “Youths were knocking door by door saying ‘if you don’t come out for the rally we will force you out.’ I was scared to walk in the streets. I was very afraid. They gave us papers with Zanu-PF information instructing you to attend a rally, they said ‘if you don’t attend, we will come to your houses’.”
Yuda describes how attempts were made to persuade people to vote. “During the elections, even the unemployed could get things, they would sell some sugar cheaply. Now [after the vote] they will sell sugar at the actual value, like this milk by tomorrow, it will be sold for Z$5-billion.”
The level of intimidation is also demonstrated by a meeting inside the prison which workers are forced to attend.
A senior prison official sings a campaign song and tells fellow officers: “When I have sung, I want you to understand what is being said in this song in relation with the current situation, do you understand?”
The song contains lines that are dismissive of the opposition: “They wait to criticise, while they stir the soup/Forgiving each other has failed,/Living peacefully has failed,/Understanding each other has failed,/Return the spirit of the heroes into the battlefield, Return the spirit of the heroes into the battlefield ... Return our strength to us, Jehovah, lord of war.”
The speaker warns: “I want to remind you that these whites we are trying to send away—they hate us. It’s like, if you fall while walking in town, whites will just look at you and ask what happened while they are walking away. They won’t help you up.”
‘Gentlemen, I have a spear in my house’
The footage shows both the extent of fear and the level of resistance in the country. One man remarks: “Gentlemen, I have a spear in my house. Do not underrate me.” He is told: “Father, you will die holding that spear ... Your spear can only stab one person. Those men will be armed. It is not just youth we are seeing there, some are guards, police and soldiers.”
On Friday evening, Yuda had slipped out of the country with his family for a new life. His family had been unaware of his plans or his undercover filming until the last moment. He is leaving without regrets.
“I don’t regret doing this although it is a painful decision I have taken. I am very glad to move out of Zimbabwe to a better, secure country where I am going to live peacefully with my family. We can live without the memories of seeing dead bodies in the prison, dead bodies in the street, dead bodies in my family.
“I’ve lost my uncle. My father was also beaten by Zanu-PF. I am praying to God: please, God, deal with Zanu-PF ruthlessly.” - guardian.co.uk
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