Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Wounds Still Fresh as Mugabe Calls for Elections

By Thelma Chikwanha

Surrounded by a gang armed with guns, pangas, stones and knobkerries, 79-year-old Nelia Chironga of Chiweshe could only watch as her son Gibbs took two bullets in a cold-blooded murder.

The first shot got Gibbs – who had just been elected councillor on an MDC [Movement for Democratic Change] ticket – in the stomach. But the bullet that finished him off struck him in the chest.

“Blood flowed like a river,” says Chironga, bowing her head and weeping.

This happened on June 20, 2008, barely a week before a watershed presidential election runoff in which President Robert Mugabe was fighting to overturn a first round election defeat by long-time arch-rival Morgan Tsvangirai, now prime minister in a fragile coalition government.

Today, as Mugabe boldly declares that elections are on this year – with or without democratic reforms agreed under the power-sharing Global Political Agreement – Chironga feels freshly wounded.

Following Mugabe’s birthday declaration that he will unilaterally call an election this year to end the coalition government, the Daily News tracked down some of the victims of the 2008 violence.

Rights groups, churches and political parties aside from Mugabe’s Zanu PF party attributed the violence to a military-led pro-Mugabe campaign. Mugabe insists all political parties were involved in the violence.

Chironga and her family’s story paints the perfect portrait of how things remain the same, three years after the formation of a coalition government that came with so much promise. To people such as Chironga, Mugabe’s birthday comments bring the smell of death closer.

The elderly, like Chironga, left with families to feed but with no means of survival, have had it hardest and remain the most vulnerable to political abuse, according to human rights groups and churches.

Negotiating a muddy terrain is any driver’s nightmare. But the sight of cattle grazing in green fields, children running to school barefoot and whispering old men on morning chores walking their dogs make for a typically tranquil environment characteristic of rural Zimbabwe. The hustle and bling of the city fades away.

As one moves further, one encounters the ruins on the Chironga homestead, in Chiweshe’s Musiwa village 90 kilometres north of Harare.

The African Union, in typical timid and diplomatic language in June 2008 described the presidential runoff as falling “short of the AU standards of democratic elections”, before mandating regional bloc SADC to mediate for a coalition government in Zimbabwe.

Three years into a coalition that brought with it promises of national healing reconciliation and reintegration, citizens like Chironga still feel the pinch – made even worse with the heightened talk of elections.

Chironga is among the women who groups like the Research and Advocacy Unit (Rau) say suffered worst in the 2008 election violence.

And indeed a cruel reality dawns as one enters the Chironga homestead. Stones still coloured with soot from fire mark the ruins. Piles of rusty metal that once formed the roofing of a storeroom tell a tale of destruction.

On the left side of the compound, a four-bed-roomed house similar to those in Harare’s working class suburbs such as Budiriro is partially burnt.

“I am so grateful for your visit, because no one ever comes to visit us any more. It seems that we are now outcasts among our own people. They are now afraid of associating with us because they may be caught in between us and Zanu PF,” Chironga says.

Too emotional and tears running down, she leaves it to Hilton, her only surviving son, to narrate the story.

Hilton, 44, has taken over his brother’s seat as a local MDC councillor.

He said the family woke up to the noise of a group of Zanu PF supporters, who he claims included government security officials.

“Gibbs, who had just been elected councillor, said we had no choice but to face our death. We then decided to come out and face our death,” Hilton said.

The gang, said Hilton, was armed with sticks, stones and gallons of petrol and started burning the families’ property, including livestock.

“It all happened fast,” he said, shaking with emotions that have been building up over the past three years since the ordeal happened. “Some were shooting, others were burning our chickens, cattle and pigs. Our house was also being burnt at the same time. We had nowhere to run.

“Because they had surrounded our entire compound, we had no escape. We surrendered. They took my brother and said to him, ‘so you have been elected councillor? Do you think you will ever be councillor here? We do not want MDC here’,” Hilton said.

Before tragedy struck, Chironga was a fairly successful rural farmer. She lives in abject poverty today, with no proper place to lay her head.

Her daughter Susan was present on the fateful day. She interjects, seeing her mother and brother cannot take it any more.

“My mother has not enjoyed good health since the fateful day. She was beaten up and forced to drink a pesticide. Her ribs were damaged,” she says, trying to look composed.

“My mother has not been well at all,” says the pint sized, 46-year-old woman.

Women like Susan and her mother are part of a vast number that rights and research groups such as Rau say suffered the most during the 2008 conflict.

Moses Mzila Ndlovu, one of the three members to the cross-party national healing organ says Zanu PF militancy has rendered efforts at reconciliation ineffective.

“There are some members in government particularly members of Zanu PF who are not keen on seeing the national healing function according to its mandate because they are really afraid they might find themselves in trouble,” Ndlovu said.

“Zanu PF activists have already started harassing us again, just recently I heard that the district provincial chairperson was looking for people to attack again," said Chironga.

“I do not know why their thirst for blood cannot be quenched,” grandmother Chironga said.

Deputy Minister of Women’s Affairs, Gender and Development Jessie Majome said women, who constitute 52 per cent of the population, were most affected by the 2008 election violence, including rape.

A Rau research published early last year states that out of 27 women it recorded as having been raped during the 2008 elections, 21 were also severely beaten up.

The United Nations resolution 1325 adopted in October 2000 states that governments should protect women during times of conflict.

Zimbabwe is also a signatory to various other instruments such as the Convention on Elimination of all form of Discrimination against Women, that protect women.

But, as the hype on a possible 2012 poll gathers momentum, Chironga and her family fear they might add to election violence statistics well before perpetrators of the 2008 violence are brought to book.

“They [Zanu PF supporters] are already telling us that this election is a do-or die [event], and they are coming after us,” she says.

Published in the Daily News, Zimbabwe, on February 29, 2012.

This investigative report was produced under the Strengthening Media Reform and Civil Society Transition in Zimbabwe project, a partnership between IWPR, the Humanitarian Information Facilitation Centre and the Media Centre in Harare.