Why I had to flee Zimbabwe

FREELANCE journalist Stanley Kwenda was found dead on the outskirts of Harare. His remains were found dumped in a ditch along the Harare to Domboshava road . . . ”

An imagined worst case scenario. True.

But after that strange and angry voice on the phone last Friday evening promised I would not survive the weekend, the imagined and probably exaggerated scenario above was something I could not say with certainty could never happen. I had to act immediately. 

But the good news first. I am safe and sound in my hiding place. Who knows, all the news organisations that carried the story of how I fled Zimbabwe last week following the death threats would by now probably have been writing about my death.

 

Usual suspects

Sadly, all this is happening at a time when we should be celebrating the dawn of a new era of democracy in Zimbabwe. I saw it first hand last Friday evening that the usual suspects are still on the prowl – almost a year after a new coalition government came into office in Harare with a mandate to promote among other things the rule of law and respect for human rights.

Friday began with the normal routine, which means grabbing all the newspapers I can lay my hands on just to check what’s happening around.

I had just received a copy of British-based Index on Censorship 2009 Review. From the moment I flipped open the first chapter, I could never put the book down.

The stories told in the book of how some journalists elsewhere in the world have stood up to tyranny – with some even getting killed in the process – in order to be able to practise their profession are encouraging. 

Although, I must admit, there is something quite disturbing about knowing that someone could order your death simply because you dared tell a story.

Somewhere, on one of the pages of the Index, there was a long list of journalists who have either been harassed, incarcerated or lost their lives in the line of duty. Interestingly, some of them were from Zimbabwe – and little did I know that by end of that day, I would be part of the statistics.

Death threats

This was after I received very specific death threats from a senior police officer in connection with a story I did for the The Zimbabwean newspaper.

At about 11 am I received a call on my phone and on the other end of the line was a gentleman who told me that a certain Sylvia who works for fast food outlet Chicken Inn wanted to talk to me.

The said Sylvia later called me on my cellphone. She said she wanted us to meet at some point in central Harare so that she could give me more information on how Police Commissioner General Augustine Chihuri had blocked Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai from visiting police stations around the country. Apparently this was the subject of my story in The Zimbabwean.

I asked her who she was and why she wanted to give me that information. In response, she said she was just any ordinary Zimbabwean who had information that was of public interest and that could be of help to the country.

She had used this same trick to dupe people at The Zimbabwean newspaper to give her my cellphone number.

Unusual determination

Somehow her rather unusual determination to get the “story or information” to me left me wondering just why any genuine news source would pursue a reporter so much. Generally, things are supposed to be the other way round.

In no time, the lady called again. This time pleading with me to urgently come to the place in central Harare where she had earlier suggested we meet. At that point I realised I was being lured into a trap!

I told her to send her information to me via the e-mail address of The Zimbabwean newspaper but she insisted on a face-to-face meeting. At that point I told her off and asked her not to call me again.

But as I prepared to get my weekend into swing, I received a call at 7.15 pm on my mobile phone while I was having a drink with a friend at a local hotel.

The number of the caller was not displayed on my phone but I could hear a male voice on the other end of the line. Before I knew it, the man at the other end of the line was hurling threats and insults at me. “Kwenda, you are not going to last this weekend,” the man thundered in an audibly harsh and angry voice.

The man never gave me a chance to make head or tail of why he had actually called me. He was just spewing all sorts of profanities, while repeatedly reminding me that I was going to die, that I would be dead before fellow congregants at my church uttered the last word of the evening prayer that following Sunday.

For a moment, I was puzzled by it all, I could not just understand why anyone would threaten me with death when I can’t even harm a fly.

Licence to kill

But I was under no illusion as to the potentially dire consequences of ignoring the threat, especially when it dawned on me that the only person who could have been behind the threatening call was the senior police officer whom I had obviously named and shamed in the story published by The Zimbabwean.

I have never felt so afraid but on the day in question I was left trembling. The policeman in question belongs to a “special” group of security agents who seem to have “unofficial” licence to maim, torture, abduct and kill as they please. I was left with no option but to think of a way out.

For a moment, I thought of seeking sanctuary at a friend’s place. I also thought of calling my lawyer so that we could confront the caller.

But, when I tried to make a quick count of the number of court orders that have been ignored by the police and the number of people who have been tortured and sometimes killed by the usual suspects, it became so obvious to me that no one could guarantee my safety and security.

Neither the courts nor the inclusive government that has to date done pretty nothing to restore the rule of law and respect for human rights in the country could protect me.

I felt like I was all alone to face a lynch mob, there was no option but to leave the country. – ZimOnline