As we watch the tumultuous events taking place in Zimbabwe and find out what will be Mugabe’s ( and his wife’s) fate, I think about courageous Zimbabwe journalists who were driven out of their beautiful country and paid a terrible price for trying to report the truth.
Back in 1999, two journalists working for the Zimbabwe Standard, dared to report that there’d been a failed coup attempt against Robert Mugabe. Mark Chavunduka and Ray Choto were summoned by Mugabe’s security forces and ordered to reveal their sources. They refused and were viciously subjected to 11 days of beatings and torture.
Here’s what the Guardian said happened to them:
“For more than 10 days, Chavunduka and Choto were detained incommunicado at Cranborne barracks near Harare. Their lawyer, Simon Bull, said both men were subjected to electric shocks on their genitals, hands and feet by military interrogators, and had their heads submerged in drums of water. They were also blindfolded, stripped naked, made to do push-ups in the rain, and to roll in wet grass to clean the blood from their bodies after beating.
Independent medical sources confirmed the torture allegations, and the incident, seen by many as the most outrageous attack on press freedom in Zimbabwe since independence, drew worldwide condemnation.
When they finally were released, barely clinging to life, they found a way to escape from Zimbabwe and were given refuge in London at the Medical Foundation for Torture Victims.
The first time that I had heard about their nightmarish experience in Zimbabwe was in a sympathetic story that appeared in the Daily Telegraph. Shortly afterwards, I arranged to see them and offered whatever help I could provide in my capacity as the director of the European Centre of the American foundation, the Freedom Forum.
I got to know both well but became especially close to Mark Chavunduka who was awarded a Nieman Fellowship to Harvard. I visited him once in Boston and had long talks with him about his future and whether he could ever return to Zimbabwe as long as Mugabe and his obedient military and brutal security forces were in power.
Yet when I saw him next in London after his Nieman study was concluded, he had decided to return to Harare. I shall never forget my conversation with him as we stood near Hyde Park. I pressed him on why he was prepared to take this risk as his wife and young children were out of harm’s way and living in the U.S. outside of Detroit.
He told me that he had ” no choice about whether to go back”; that he couldn’t live with the idea or himself that Mugabe had so intimidated him that couldn’t overcome his fears and return home.
But he was unwell, drinking heavily, and I worried that he faced a difficult and dangerous future.
He did decide to stay away from hard political journalism and became the publisher of a new weekly magazine. He asked me to invest in it. I did.
I heard little from him and then after a long period of no communication received an email that I somehow lost or destroyed. Then the terrible News in 2002 that Mark was dead after a lengthy illness at the age of 36 . The cause of death wasn’t reported but I later learned that he died from complications of HIV Aids.
There are so many other exiled Zimbabwe journalists including Ray Choto and a talented brave former student of mine at City University, Sandra Nyaira whose newspaper was fire bombed by Mugabe thugs and she was forced to leave her homeland and is still unable to return.
Yet this time Mugabe’s days do seem numbered. No one knows what to expect in a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe or whether the military and security forces will allow a genuinely free and independent media to emerge. But sooner rather than later, I hope to be on a plane to Harare and making my way to Mark Chavunduka’s grave where I will bow my head in respect.