The Magazine

Meet Mugabe's Victims

Thousands have been killed or tortured by the Zimbabwean dictator. Here are the stories of three.

Dec 25, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 15 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
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Like many Zimbabweans, he too has fond memories of Mugabe's early years. He met the president in 1982, when Mugabe and his widely admired first wife, Sally, visited du Plessis's school. The president rubbed his head. "In those years I was very scared of the sirens," he explains, speaking of the president's ubiquitous motorcade. In a foreshadowing of his future outspokenness, du Plessis piped up as the First Family made their way to their car, "Please, Mr. Mugabe, I've got a terrible headache. Please don't put on the sirens." The motorcade left quietly, "like sedate human beings," du Plessis recalls. "Years ago Mugabe never used to be like this," he says, shaking his head. "In general, he was a very good man."

Du Plessis continues to broadcast, but he is careful about what he says. "I love my country. . . . Being away [at school] in South Africa I was deprived of growing up in the country I love so much."

Few American college students could readily identify with the difficulties endured by Givemore Chari, age 23. As a student at Bindura University of Science Education, in the ZANU-PF stronghold of Mashona land Central Province, Chari helped to lead a democracy movement. Now he must do so in exile.

Zimbabwe's system of higher education, heavily dependent on state funds, has suffered greatly from the country's economic unraveling, which has predictably led to student unrest. Student-led protests at the increase of tuition fees and other, more grave political provocations are a common occurrence. At Bindura, the outspoken Chari was president of the Student Representatives' Council. In October 2005 he was suspended, not for academic infractions or hard partying, but for allegedly sowing "feelings of hate and dislike."

Given Zimbabwe's 13 universities and large student population, it is not difficult to see why the government considers students "a major threat within the composition of the democratic forces" in the country, Chari says. He himself feels an obligation to the ordinary Zimbabwean, whose taxes support higher education but who often cannot send his own children to college. "I am bound to be his voice when he is oppressed and is voiceless, I am bound to speak for him. I am bound to free that individual. Neglecting him when I am benefiting from the tax that is coming from his sweat is tantamount to betrayal."

In May of this year, Chari attended the annual conference of the Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU) in Harare. One of President Mugabe's ubiquitous portraits was hanging in the conference room. "His staying in power [after the rigged 2002 election] was illegitimate as far as we were concerned," Chari says. "The idea of respecting him and having his picture in our conference room was like legitimizing" his election-stealing. So the students carefully removed the presidential portrait and turned it over to the police officers standing watch. Forty-eight students including Chari were arrested at the end of the three-day conference on trumped-up charges.

In prison, he and the others were "brutally assaulted" by guards and denied access to any sort of medical treatment or food until the next day--and then only after human rights lawyers intervened. Three days later, when Chari arrived back at school, he was promptly rearrested, detained, and beaten again. When released, he returned to join mass protests at his school. "We decided to continue with the demonstrations until our fellow comrades were released," he told me.

It was at this time that he was "forcibly abducted" by intelligence officers. He was thrown into a brown Toyota pickup where drunken thugs beat and spit on him, threatening to kill him. He says he lost consciousness for about 30 minutes yet somehow managed to escape just as someone threw a glass bottle at him, scarring his face. He made his way to South Africa in late May and was staying in Johannesburg when I met him in mid-August.

The chances of Chari's returning to Zimbabwe anytime soon are slim. He told me he was planning on leaving for another African country (which he could not disclose) out of fear for his safety. Zimbabwean agents have been known to infiltrate the exile community (estimated at between 1.5 and 3 million people) in South Africa. "This regime can do anything," he says.

The people of Zimbabwe could tell countless stories like these three. What's more, men like the three I met--nonviolent political dissenters subjected to torture--were lucky: They were not killed. With international news coverage heavily slanted toward the Middle East and what little space is given to Africa focused on the continuing genocide in Sudan, the crisis of Zimbabwe has been all but ignored. Yet we should not forget about Robert Mugabe. As Holly Moyo says, "He's murdered so many people. His hands are so full of blood."

James Kirchick is an assistant to the editor in chief of the New Republic.