Jestina Mukoko, director of political violence watchdog group the Zimbabwe Peace Project, gave a speech titled “Political Violence in Zimbabwe: A Curse or an Age-Old Tradition” Dec. 2 in which she described fear that next year’s elections would prove to be more violent than the one held in 2008, during which the now-infamous Reign of Terror began.
Mukoko said that Zimbabweans “hate to think what will happen as we approach an election,” as everyone since 2000 has seen widespread acts of violence, mainly against those attempting to spur change in the government.
Currently, two representatives from the ZPP are stationed in each electoral constituency to record and monitor acts of violence alleged to have political motivations. During the Reign of Terror’s height in May 2008, the ZPP recorded a peak of 6,288 attacks related to the election.
Seven months after that peak, Mukoko herself was abducted and tortured by secret police agents. The BBC reported that she was held for 21 days and charged with “attempting to recruit people for military training to try to overthrow the government (Seized Zimbabwe activist in court, Dec. 24, 2008).”
While Mukoko acknowledged that “since colonial times, violence has been perpetrated with impunity” in Zimbabwe, she said that recently these attacks have occurred mainly against those promoting the democratization of the national government. Under the terms of a power-sharing agreement enacted in February 2009, President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai rule Zimbabwe’s government.
She described the 2005 national elections as “relatively peaceful” when compared to the hotly contested run-off in 2008. While the ZPP recorded “an assault here, an assault there,” no gross humans rights violations were reported.
However, the 2008 elections proved to be a far different affair than those of 2005. During that election cycle, neither candidate won the required “50 percent and one vote” to secure the presidential seat, prompting a second vote to be held.
Mukoko said it was between the first and second vote that the Reign of Terror broke out, as supporters of President Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union — Patriotic Front sought to stifle the opposition through any means possible.
“Children were not spared in this violence,” she said. “We have seen children being assaulted as a way of getting back at their activist parents.”
She went on to add that “the high, cold walls of a maximum security prison” are “no place for a child” and expressed her opinion that the first vote had been rigged, pointing to slow ballot counting procedures the Mugabe-led government blamed on technical difficulties.
“Even after we had the results posted at each polling location, it took the government five weeks to announce the results of the presidential election,” she said.
While she did not share details of her abduction experience, Mukoko did display numerous images depicting the horrifying results of an unfavorable encounter with the secret police.
One image showed the bleeding face of a man who had been attacked at the capitol city’s international airport and another depicted the back of a man covered with pockmarks the size of a pencil eraser.
“The wounds that you see … were caused by burning plastic being dropped on his back,’ she said.
In order to help end years of violence and unite a population traditionally divided by political ideals under a single banner, the government created the Organ on National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration. To date, however, the organization has done little to actually achieve these goals and it will be unable to have any real effect on the political climate before next year’s election, Mukoko said.
“I think that Zimbabweans saw a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel if it had been given time,” she said. “The problem is that we do not have the time for this to happen.”
Despite the national government’s slow response and her own abduction experience, Mukoko believes peace and healing are attainable goals. She said individuals on both sides of the attacks — victims and perpetrators alike — can only reach these goals if the truth is exposed.
She compared the current political climate to a cut that has not been treated and has been left hidden beneath a bandage instead.
“The wound is still festering beneath that covering,” she said, adding, “I believe that my abductors need to be healed.”
Going into the 2011 election, Mukoko said she is worried that resurgence in the number of attacks will discourage citizens from speaking their minds and prompt them to vote for Mugabe to avoid persecution.
“I am worried about what I see as violence that will break out around the election,” she said.
Mukoko has been serving as the 2010 Human Rights Fellow at the Oak Institute for the Study of International Human Rights at Colby College and will return to Zimbabwe next month, after which she will begin readying ZPP staff for the elections.
“I only hope and pray that I will be allowed to continue my work,” she said. – The Maine Campas