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‘Itai Dzamara’s only sin was speaking up’

This Friday, March 9, will be three years to the day that my brother disappeared. 

Itai Dzamara is seven years older than me, the oldest among five, and my best friend. I’ve been searching for him every day for the last three years. Now that Robert Mugabe’s time – a nightmare for most Zimbabweans – is over, it is time to end Itai’s nightmare and bring him home.

He disappeared on the morning of March 9 2015. He was abducted by five men at a barber shop.

This Friday, the “anniversary” of him vanishing from our lives, is a dark day for my family. It represents a decayed government, a retrogressive system and a system which does not welcome criticism. 

My brother’s only sin was documenting and criticising what the government has done to its citizens and to the country. During Mugabe’s tenure as president, the climate was so repressive that speaking out against the regime and its failure to run our nation with justice was like a death sentence.

The struggle of an earlier generation for freedom, independence and an end to British colonial rule was fundamentally about the dignity of the Zimbabwean people and to assert ourselves as citizens of our own nation. We all learned these lessons growing up, and we took them seriously – Itai was motivated by this spirit. 

But over the years, it became clear that the fight against colonial oppression is not entirely over, and that the freedoms we hoped would follow independence have been taken away by our own government. Itai’s only sin was pulling the curtain back and exposing the illusion of post-colonial democracy in Zimbabwe.

Before his disappearance, Itai was a journalist and one of the most prominent critics of Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe. He founded the Occupy Africa Unity Square movement and through that led demonstrations, sit-ins and other actions – work I have taken on in his absence. Through his work, both as a journalist and through his activism, Itai publicly called on other Zimbabweans to stand up, organise and denounce Robert Mugabe’s autocratic regime.

What the struggle represents to us, what it means to us, first and foremost it represents fighting oppression. It challenges the current situation wherein the government of Zimbabwe is not at all accountable to citizens and where the fundamentals of democracy, such as the freedom of speech, are not upheld.

That is the reason why my brother Itai was taken. They did not accept or allow voices of dissent, they did not allow criticisms, they did not allow people to freely express themselves regarding how they felt about the manner of which government issues were being carried out. That created a very difficult environment for human rights defenders (HRDs) to operate in Zimbabwe. Most were tortured, most were arrested, some left the country, many were killed and Itai has been disappeared.

By publicly demanding to know what transpired when Itai disappeared, I have also faced harassment and violence at the hands of the government. In 2016, I was arrested more than 25 times. I appeared in court more than 100 times. I was tortured. I became a victim of state-sponsored and state-orchestrated violence.

That was the situation under Mugabe. We are still waiting to see something different in the so-called ‘new era’ of Emmerson Mnangagwa’s leadership.

This new government are doing their best to present a reformed face to the public and to the international community. But we know that a leopard does not change its spots.

Our current leaders have not made themselves accountable for what happened to Itai. That is despite the fact that we have made it clear, categorically and from the onset, that the abduction of Itai Dzamara was the work of the government of Zimbabwe – masterminded by military intelligence. We have never minced words regarding that point. Unfortunately, the government of Zimbabwe has done virtually nothing to try and address the issue of Itai’s disappearance.

President Mnangagwa has failed to address the issue of Itai’s disappearance, even though I’ve petitioned him, I’ve written to him, I’ve done so many things to try and get his attention regarding this issue, but I’ve been stonewalled. The people of Zimbabwe have been stonewalled.

It is a different administration, but it is not new leadership. These are the same people who helped Mugabe oppress us. These are the same people who presided over suffering in Zimbabwe. By virtue of them usurping Mugabe for the purposes of serving their own political agendas, they cannot be considered reformers. They are the same people who helped Mugabe oppress the masses.

They were the custodians of violence and so cannot be trusted with the administration of a new and better Zimbabwe. We need a new breed of leaders. We need a fresh start in this nation.

Today is a turning point. We’re going to escalate our pressure on the government so that after three years we finally get answers about Itai’s disappearance. We are not going to leave any stone unturned.

My brother spoke out when absolutely nobody dared to criticise Robert Mugabe. His boldness and courage in an oppressive climate is something worth emulation. His strength is something I’ve always treasured, learned from and most importantly, that I’ve also tried to replicate in my own work. When it comes to Itai’s disappearance, it’s not just about a brother fighting for a brother. I am a man who has been robbed of a best friend. I am a man robbed of a father figure. I am a man robbed of a mentor. In a country being robbed of its future.

Itai acted from a place of courage and clarity. He paved the way for all of us. He blazed a trail. We are just following in his footsteps and carrying on his courageous work.

The new government of Emmerson Mnangagwa are now responsible for my brother’s fate. On the day marking three years since his abduction, his enforced disappearance, we have five demands:

1. We demand that the government bring Itai Dzamara back to us, dead or alive.

2. We demand that the government engage with us on the subject of enforced disappearances and violations of international standards for human rights in Zimbabwe.

3. We demand reparations for Itai Dzamara’s family. Itai has a wife and two children.

4. We demand the government institutionalise an independent commission of inquiry to look into the abduction of Itai Dzamara and, ultimately, other similar cases of enforced disappearance and to make the findings public.

5. We demand that in the spirit of Itai Dzamara, the upcoming election be free and fair. 

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