Where We Have Hope: A Memoir of Zimbabweby Andrew Meldrum
Where We Have Hope is the gripping memoir of a young American journalist. In 1980, Andrew Meldrum arrived in a Zimbabwe flush with new independence, and he fell in love with the country and its optimism. But over the twenty years he lived there, Meldrum watched as President Robert Mugabe consolidated power and the government evolved into despotism. In May/i>… See more details below
Where We Have Hope is the gripping memoir of a young American journalist. In 1980, Andrew Meldrum arrived in a Zimbabwe flush with new independence, and he fell in love with the country and its optimism. But over the twenty years he lived there, Meldrum watched as President Robert Mugabe consolidated power and the government evolved into despotism. In May 2003, Meldrum, the last foreign journalist still working in the dangerous and chaotic nation, was illegally forced to leave his adopted home. His unflinching work describes the terror and intimidation Mugabe’s government exercised on both the press and citizens, and the resiliency of Zimbabweans determined to overturn Mugabe and demand the free society they were promised.
- Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
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Where We Have HopeA Memoir of Zimbabwe
By Andrew Meldrum
Atlantic Monthly PressCopyright © 2004 Andrew Meldrum
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEtched in My Memory
"You are continuing to write bad things about Zimbabwe," the immigration officer says to me, leaning toward me and narrowing his eyes in a menacing way. Over the past year I have been persistently harassed by President Robert Mugabe's government. I have been arrested, jailed, put on trial, and, eventually, acquitted. Now sitting in Linquenda House, a shabby government office block in central Harare, I don't want to let the officer suggest my reporting has been less than honest and fair.
"Not about Zimbabwe," I counter. "My stories may be critical of the government, but they're not bad about Zimbabwe. I've written the truth about what's going on here. You and I both know it."
We both also know that my articles in the Guardian over the past three years have infuriated Mugabe and his ministers. That is what this meeting is all about. My reports have highlighted torture, rape, and murder by state agents. The government has categorically denied any such abuses, but my stories, and those of other journalists, have conclusively uncovered systematic state violence. Through my articles I have tried to hold the government accountable for its actions and to highlight the brave struggle fora return to democracy by many Zimbabweans. Supporters of the opposition party, leaders of women's groups, human rights activists, church leaders, and ordinary people have all made their own stands for democracy and have courageously faced frightening repression. Far from writing "bad things about Zimbabwe," by writing about their heroic efforts in the face of terrible threats and violence from the state, I believe I have been reporting the best of Zimbabwe.
I am aware that this is not the time for a discussion of my writing. Evans Siziba, the tall immigration officer with the threatening stance of a boxer, has been hounding me for a year. Ten days ago, Siziba turned up at my house at night. The quiet residential street was especially dark because the streetlights had not worked for nearly a year. When my wife, Dolores, walked down the drive to answer the gate, she was startled to see four plainclothes officers. Behind them were four vehicles, including a large van with blacked-out windows.
It could only mean they were planning to pick me up illegally. Over the past months, I had written many stories about Zimbabweans who had been taken from their homes by plainclothes government agents who beat and tortured them. We knew from the experience of friends that such shadowy night visits meant trouble.
In fact, Siziba was not an immigration officer at all. We knew from government sources that he was really an agent of the much-feared Central Intelligence Organization, Zimbabwe's secret police, who answer directly to Mugabe and place agents in key government departments. I had interviewed many victims of CIO interrogations and seen their wounds: cigarette burns and open sores where electrodes had been placed on their fingers, toes, ear lobes, tongues, and genitals. Siziba had not come to my home to have a civilized conversation about my writing.
Siziba told Dolores that he wanted to see me. He refused to show her any identification papers, nor would he say why he wanted to speak to me. Recognizing him from our earlier encounters, she told him I was not at home. He replied that he would wait for me to return. Dolores came back to the house and immediately called our lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa.
I was not about to comply with Siziba's illegal actions. I had to leave the house without him seeing me. Somehow I managed to finish the last paragraphs of a story I had been working on and e-mailed it to the Guardian. Grabbing my cell phone and some money, I went through our laundry room and out the back door. I looked at the wall behind my herb garden; it towered above me. I carried out a stepladder but it left me still short of the tiles at the top of the wall. Jumping up, I grabbed the top and then hauled myself over. Slowly I let myself down the other side. I dangled for a moment and then dropped about ten feet to the ground. My belt buckle caught on the wall, throwing mc off balance, and I landed on my side. I picked myself up and stood listening. The neighboring house was very close to the wall, but the people inside were playing music quite loudly so they didn't hear me, and fortunately they did not have any dogs. I hurried down their driveway unnoticed. As I let myself out at the gate, I saw a man standing at the corner near our house. I casually walked the other way until I came to a dark corner, where I used my cell phone to call a friend. He agreed to pick me up right away.
I took a deep breath and looked at the clear sky. Zimbabwe was entering its winter; it got dark early and the night air was chilly. I could see the stars of the Southern Cross and Scorpio while I watched the fruit bats fly past. The night was very still and I could hear the drumming and singing of a group of Apostolics, a religious sect that would meet in open fields nearby, dressed in white robes. This was my neighborhood, but now I was forced to hide.
My lawyer, Beatrice, arrived at our house within minutes. Later she would tell me how she had asked Siziba and the others to show their identification and state what they were doing but they refused. She insisted that it was their legal obligation, but Siziba simply said they would stay at our gate until I returned.
By then my wife had called other journalists and told them about the gang at our gate. Soon a dozen or so reporters from Zimbabwean newspapers and the international press were also at the entrance to our property, watching to see what these government agents would do. Frustrated by the presence of so many witnesses and visibly angry, Siziba announced he was leaving to get "reinforcements."
The friend who picked me up drove me to the home of another friend, where I burst in on a family dinner and was promptly invited to join it. I explained my situation and went to a quiet room to phone Dolores, Beatrice, and the Guardian. These good people insisted I stay with them that night, even after I described all the possible risks of a visit to their home by the CIO or the police, or even Mugabe's gangs of war veterans.
For ten days I eluded Siziba and his crew. I knew I had done nothing wrong or illegal, even by Zimbabwe's draconian laws. There was no warrant out for my arrest-in fact my lawyer had court orders protecting me. I was in the bizarre and often frightening situation of evading government agents who were acting illegally.
During the day I tried to carry on as normally as possible. I managed to file a story, cover a demonstration, and do several radio interviews. I even did some early-morning jogging along my favorite routes and met friends for lunch. But by then I had become a highly recognizable figure in Zimbabwe, especially as the government was printing stories about me in the state press, which charged that I was on the run. When people saw me they came up to congratulate me and to offer me encouragement, so Dolores insisted I wear a hat with a floppy brim, and when friends drove me into Harare's city center I lay on the floor of their cars. But these were really halfhearted gestures. I had always prided myself on doing my work openly and aboveboard and was uncomfortable about being "undercover." Dolores and I did not sleep at home.
The nights were difficult, knowing that the CIO had a way of picking people up after dark. We tried not to stay at any one place for more than a couple of days to avoid detection, so the rooms were always unfamiliar. We were in touch with a network of "safe houses" where other people had stayed when they were trying to avoid being picked up. I was just one of many people dodging government agents; others included opposition supporters, church leaders who had spoken out against government abuses, human rights activists, fellow journalists, and former police officers who had exposed torture and murder committed by uniformed officers. I was in good company.
At some of the places where we stayed people wanted to talk about what was happening in Zimbabwe and what would bring change. They would become passionate about their country and discuss different ways that Mugabe might be ousted and democracy reestablished. Everyone seemed to think that change was just around the corner.
I made a couple of strategic public appearances. On the day that the state-controlled Herald newspaper ran a front-page article declaring that I was in hiding and a fugitive from justice, I proved it wrong by attending a large diplomatic reception where I met with many African and European ambassadors. "I am a fugitive from injustice," I said, reminding them that the courts had found that I had the legal right to live and work in Zimbabwe. By evading government officers who were acting outside the law, I was merely trying to get the government to deal with my case according to its own laws.
We talked about Zimbabwe's worsening economy, with inflation at 350 percent and zooming higher, about the food and fuel shortages, and the national strike planned to shut down the country for a week. We also discussed movements that challenged Mugabe's grip on power. Other African countries were encouraging him to hold talks with the opposition party and to accept that new elections, fully free and fair, needed to be held. Many expressed optimism that things would improve. The African diplomats were friendly and frank about the need to put pressure on Mugabe, but we all knew that they would still issue public statements of support for him, in the name of African solidarity.
I ducked away from the reception, elated by the encouragement I received, but my high spirits evaporated when my cell phone rang. It was our host of the night before, fear cracking his voice, warning me not to return to his home: two men were hanging around the front of his driveway. I called Dolores and told her not to go back there. I was keenly aware that each day the CIO and the Mugabe government failed to apprehend me, the stakes were getting higher. I was worried that my colleagues, family, and friends would be attacked instead of me. "The longer this goes on, the more dangerous it becomes for you and for everyone around you," said Beatrice when we managed to meet. "It could be your life."
Beatrice generally made light of any danger, but this time she was serious. I knew that she, too, was under threat. She was followed as she went about her business during the day and when she went home at night. I was not her only high-profile client: she was also representing the mayor of Harare, Elias Mudzuri, who was fighting a battle with the government to run the city. As the candidate for the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, Mudzuri had been elected in 2002 by a whopping 80 percent majority, but the government was determined to prevent the opposition from managing the capital city. Mudzuri had been jailed for three days and then released without charge; then the judge who dropped the spurious charges against Mudzuri found himself in jail on equally questionable charges. Mugabe's toughs invaded the mayoral offices, where they beat up some city officials and locked Mudzuri out. Despite court orders stating that Mudzuri had the right to function as the mayor, police stood by and refused to take any action. Under these circumstances, merely arranging a meeting with Beatrice was difficult. We made plans on our cell phones, which were more difficult to bug than our fixed lines. We met in an office of a large Harare building where she went in one entrance and I went in another, but it was becoming more dangerous as the days went on. Many people had suggested that I simply leave the country, possibly seeking protection from the American embassy to ensure that I got out safely. But I did not want to give the impression that I had anything to hide or was running away. Beatrice wanted to pursue and, if necessary, exhaust every legal avenue to get fair treatment for me. Now we decided to go to the Immigration Department the next day. Beatrice and I tried to call Siziba but found that he was never in his office at Immigration, his absence making us all the more suspicious that he was not a bona fide immigration officer. Eventually I succeeded in reaching him on his cell phone. He immediately started shouting, accusing me of hiding from him, until I took the wind out of his sails by agreeing to come in to see him the next morning. We knew that I could be forcibly, if illegally, expelled from Zimbabwe at that meeting, but we could not see any better way to deal with it than head-on.
This meeting with Beatrice lasted until dusk, and when I left I went back to my house. I had other places to stay but I felt a burning need to be at my own home and to sleep in my own bed. I wanted to be with my dogs and wander through my garden. This was what the government was trying to take away from me and I was determined not to let go of it. It seemed there weren't any agents hanging around our street; they must have been looking for me elsewhere.
I got a rapturous reception from our three dogs. I knew this might be my last time with them; certainly my oldest dog, my faithful black Labrador, was on his last legs and I would not see him again. I loved the home that Dolores and I had made together, and I could not bring myself to accept that I would be torn away from the house, the garden, the dogs. When friends and colleagues phoned, I explained in a matter-of-fact tone that I was going to Immigration the next day, but I could not bring myself to suggest that this might be good-bye. I found it much easier to do an interview with a radio station, describing my situation and legal status in detail and declaring that I was determined to remain in Zimbabwe. The moon was full that night and my garden was bathed in the lunar glow. I wandered through it, admiring the new growth, especially of the acacia trees I had planted. I made mental notes of things I wanted to do: tend some young palm trees, put in some seasonal flowers, and add more goldfish to the little pond. This was still my home. Dolores and I cooked dinner in our own kitchen and ate at our own table. I slept well that night.
The following morning Beatrice and I were in determined spirits when we walked into Linquenda House, the tall, increasingly shabby office block in central Harare which houses Immigration and many other government departments. The well-maintained government building that I had encountered when I first arrived in Zimbabwe in 1980 had become run-down, with long rows of missing floor tiles and peeling wall coverings. Fluorescent lights flickered uncertainly overhead and others were just burned out. Only one of the four elevators was in service. The dilapidated state of the building was a symbol for how things had changed in Zimbabwe.
In contrast to the corridor outside, the office of Elasto Mugwadi, the chief immigration officer, was well appointed and spacious, with a large couch and comfortable chairs. We were met by Mugwadi himself, together with Siziba. A trained lawyer, Mugwadi took pains to show he was proceeding legally. Prior to the meeting, Beatrice had told me he would try to show that he was going by the rules, because he knew he could be struck off the list of legal practitioners if it were proved he did anything illegal. Mugwadi was pleasant and cordial and maintained a businesslike atmosphere. "We just want to clarify a few points about your residence permit," he said. "We want to make sure that everything is in order."
"If it is just a matter of clarification, then why did your officers come to my client's house after dark?" asked Beatrice. Mugwadi claimed not to know anything about that matter, and Siziba remained silent. Mugwadi repeated that he simply needed some information about my residence permit. Beatrice insisted that I had a valid permanent residence permit and the courts had ruled I had the right to stay in the country. Mugwadi said he just wanted to check a few details. He asked to see copies of some of my articles and we agreed to bring them to his office later that day. The negotiation seemed so smooth that I actually began to think that Beatrice and I could answer Mugwadi's questions satisfactorily, provide the stories and paperwork he wanted, and put the difficulties of the past week behind us.
But then I asked for my passport. Mugwadi turned to Siziba and said I must get it from his deputy. My hopes dissolved. Mugwadi suddenly declared he had a meeting elsewhere in town. I thought he looked nervous as he grabbed his briefcase. Quickly, very quickly, he left his office.
Excerpted from Where We Have Hope by Andrew Meldrum Copyright © 2004 by Andrew Meldrum. Excerpted by permission.
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