The Fear

The word”autogenocide” came to English from a French coinage in the 1970s,meant to convey the self-slaughter of Cambodia in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge.The category has been a rather lonely one since then, with just a few instancesof mass death that were truly self-inflicted, and could not plausibly beexplained away as collateral damage in a fight against an outside enemy. Thepre-eminent current example of autogenocide is Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, andPeter Godwin’s new book The Fear is the most enraging account of what has happened there yetpublished.

Godwin, 54, isa white Zimbabwean and longtime expatriate, in part because the Zimbabweangovernment has threatened him with charges of espionage and menaced him in adozen different ways whenever he has returned. In that way he is hardlyunusual: the Zimbabwean government has banished journalists and writers fornearly a decade, and much like Cambodia under Pol Pot’s regime, Zimbabwe hasshrouded itself in secrecy and left much of the violence and famine unreported.When I last visited the country in 2001, Mugabe’s attitude could be guessed bythe company he kept. I was on the dusty road north of Harare, and governmentradio warned us all to stay indoors when a trigger-happy armed convoy drove byon its way from Zambia, carrying Mugabe’s honored guest Muammar Qadhafi.

Nowadays, feware lucky enough to get away with a warning. Godwin’s book, written on jitteryreturn visits to his home country, is a series of furtive glimpses at a countrythat has gone from breadbasket to basket-case, and now to fascist state thatattacks enemies, real and perceived, with extraordinary cruelty. Many of theseattacks reach a level of brutality that it would be unfair to inflict on theunsuspecting audience of a book review, but suffice it to say that Mugabe’sforces aim to disfigure and kill, ripping apart soft tissues and leaving bonesshattered into so many Scrabble tiles. Godwin visits a hospital ward and findsthat the injuries are frequently what the doctors call “defenseinjuries,” generally arms and fingers broken as victims lift their limbsto protect their heads against blows from a crowd. The descriptions of thesewounds would in most other books seem gratuitous, but given the absence ofcoverage from Zimbabwe they are necessary.

The authorshows particular concern, predictably, for the situation of his own community,the white Zimbabweans who profited so much from white rule in Rhodesia, andwhose farms have been raided, ruined, and occupied over the last decade by”war veterans” encouraged and directed by Mugabe. These white farmershave become, as Godwin says, “political piñatas” that Mugabe canbeat, spilling out candies for his constituents. (Again, the Cambodia parallelsare striking; Pol Pot targeted ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese, saying thecountry’s problems lay with those minorities.) Those farms once fed thecountry: now, their production has all but ceased, leaving black Zimbabweanshungry and the country devoid of exports. Mugabe acknowledges that the countryhas had a “period of hunger”—an understatement that sounded, Godwinsays, as if he were referring to the sort of temporary emptiness one might haveif “peckish before lunch.”

As for Mugabehimself, Godwin has little to add beyond the usual dumbfounded awe at the evilhe has unleashed, and the moral dementia that allows him to rule on withoutapparent shame. When he took power, Godwin writes, Mugabe gave signs of genuinereconciliation with, and even affection for, the British patrimony colonialismhad left behind—”the Savile Row suits, his fastidious English, hispenchant for Graham Greene novels, his admiration for the Queen, especiallyonce she had knighted him in 1994.” Although Godwin does meet and describea number of Mugabe associates, the best he can hypothesize is that Mugabe issimply senile and mad, and that his pronouncements at this point are littlemore than “the brain shavings of the dictatorial dotage.”

Godwin’s bookwon’t be the last about Zimbabwe’s collapse, and there are huge parts of thestory untold. He offers little analysis, just extended reportage, loose andunstructured, as a series of glimpses must be. (And the glimpses comeoverwhelmingly from white Zimbabweans—again, a hard skew to undo, given thedifficulty of reporting in Zimbabwe beyond one’s most trusted acquaintances.) Godwinmakes no predictions for the future; the pessimism is so deep that I am almostglad he doesn’t.

There are twobooks one longs to read about Zimbabwe, now that this, a creditablejournalistic account of some of the ongoing nightmares, is available. One is anaccount from Mugabe’s inner circle. Mugabe has successfully drawn multiplepolitical henchmen in close, only to discard them; where is the tell-all thatexplains how he works, and where his mind and morals have disappeared to? Theother is the account, not yet able to be written, of Mugabe’s eventual downfalland the reckoning with justice that will have to follow. Mugabe himself is oldenough to escape justice by a natural death, but many of his agents will not beso lucky. A white Zimbabwean who had his private parts shredded by a Mugabeagent tells Godwin that he saw his torturer scurry out of a hotel bar when hisvictim entered. “One day I will take his photo and report him,” saysthe man. This faith in the eventual functioning of Zimbabwe’s criminal systemis optimistic, to say the least, and will not be shared by all. As Godwinshows, the scale of the atrocity is large. And one can expect many who willwant to take more from that man than his photo.