RICHARD MARK DOBSON
RICHARD MARK DOBSON
CHAPTER 11

We heard the sound of approaching vehicles. One rattled like a truck.  Doors slammed.  Then footsteps, voices, and in walked another three men.  An then there were six.  Instead of fatigues, they wore civilian clothes.  Who where these guys?  Special branch! Zimbabwean FBI? Was there such a thing? My imagination ran wild. What seemed evident was that we were regarded as a significant catch and their air of authority suggested to me that our quick release with the offer of some cash would be futile.  We were heading off to less greener pastures it seemed.  Where I stood right now, was far from green.

We were led outside in single file, to the back of a flat bed truck. And told to hop on.  It was dark outside and the three of us were not dressed for outdoor night time sight seeing.  T-shirts and thin long sleeved shirt were not going to keep us warm.  I looked at my watch. It was 8pm and I thought about Helen.  She might by wondering by now where we were. Was she beginning to suspect something was up?

One of the plain clothed fellas got into our car.  It was coming with us. Obviously to be searched more thoroughly.  The other two fellas climbed into an unmarked car. In the meantime we were kept under guard by three officers in fatigues with rifles. We huddled together in the center of the flatbed, as the driver started to reverse us out.  

I was beginning to shiver as we entered Harare city centre.  The night was cold and the wind chill didn’t help.  People were staring at us too.  Motorists and pedestrians alike could see us clearly under the bright lights of downtown.  Observing an Mlungu in the back of a truck, crouched so close to two Africans, that it looked like we were tied together, was raising eyebrows.   Jospeh said “Harare Central, police station”.  It was an imposing looking building with insipid fluorescent lights glowing behind smeared windows.  We were led in, not through the front door, but the back.  

Inside was a respite from the cold and at first the more official atmosphere perked me up.  Some formalities ensued. “Name. Nationality. Where was I staying”?  I was then led into another room where yet again sat three men in civilians attire.  They smoked and lounged about in their chairs in such a way that it suggested to me they had special powers.  Authority. One announced they would be escorting me back to the Meikles to search my hotel room. I realized then I really was in shit.  They told me I would be reunited with my dear companions, later at Mbare police station.  I felt cold, hungry, tired and realized this was just the beginning of my troubles.

I was accompanied into the lobby of the Meikles by five men and a woman. Again all dressed in smart plain clothes. I considered for a moment, screaming out loud “help me please I’ve been arrested by Mugabe’s security apparatus”!   Sob Sob Sob. But decided against it given they had no qualms about marching me across the lobby in handcuffs. They knew, I knew, I was going nowhere, except where they wanted me to go.  The front desk staff nonchalantly handed my room key to one of the agents.  It was obvious to me everyone knew who they were, and everyone knew not to interfere with Mugabe operatives.  Up I went to my floor, in the elevator surrounded by a rather well dressed clique of government appointed interrogators, torturers, psychopaths?

What happened next could be lifted from a Hollywood movie.  So outlandish is the narrative.

My room key didn’t work. The corrupted card failed to activate the lock. One of the men in the group was sent back down to get a replacement.  There in the narrow corridor, I was surrounded by three large skulking men and one equally tall, rather elegant women. We had nothing to say to each other.  So we stood there in silence.  I faced them.  They faced me. Then like an apparition over the shoulder of one of the men, I saw something that made my heart miss a few beats. Helen was walking down the corridor towards us.  She’d obviously been told by reception that I was back.  I knew I had seconds to warn her, and in a way not to alarm my captors.  I blurted out into the silence before she had time to call out my name, “well now that you have arrested me, can you tell me how long this is going to take” and threw up my arms so she could see my wrists bound together.  It had the desired effect.  Helen stopped and started tip toeing backwards. Had the situation not been so grave I would have burst into fits of laughter. She looked so damned funny. Creeping daintily in reverse down the corridor, trying to muffle her footsteps.  I kept a straight face, for my captors where staring at me. Had any one of them looked over their shoulder, Helen would have been coming with me to Mbare police station.

By the time the replacement key arrived, Helen was out of sight.  My room was ransacked, the safe opened, my laptop and hard drives dropped into a carry bag.  I was then marched out of the hotel.  But with the consolation I knew Helen was aware of my arrest and that miraculously I had spared her capture.  Then thoughts began to arise in my mind as I sat sandwiched on the back seat of the saloon, between my two burly minders.  Would they dream up some wonderful torturing tactics to extract information from me.  I imagined a big black fella towering over me. “Are you here with anyone else besides your two accomplices” he would ask. I’d sit there in silence.  Bang. He’d belt me across the jaw.  “Let me ask you the question again. Are you here with anyone else”.  My imagination began to frighten me, and had I known then who was waiting for me in Mbare I would probably have shat my pants  right there and then  in the back for the car.

CHAPTER 10

The guard picked up his rifle as we approached and walked out to block our path.  He put his hand up.  Joseph wound down the window, and greeted him with a smile.  The guard took one look at me, and his demeanor changed from bored nonchalant to frantic manic.  He immediately stood back, lifted his rife and pointed towards a scruffy structure that stood off to our right, set against the wall just 20 paces away. A stunted brick building, that looked like a disused livestock shed. He kept his rifle pointed at us and gesticulated in such a manner that suggested if we didn’t follow his orders he would shoot.  Joseph let out a sigh, and began to reverse.  I knew I had seconds to try lose the day’s pictures.

In the few moments it took for us to reach the hut, with the guard jogging up right next to my tinted window, I pulled out the flash card from my camera and shoved it down a crack between the plastic anti-scuff padding and the fabric on the back of the drivers seat.  I frantically inserted a blank card, shot off three frames through the window, knowing too well it was a vain attempt to hide the evidence.

He ordered us out of the car and into the shed.  It was pitch black inside and stank of goat piss.  He pushed Joseph roughy into a corner and demanded we sit on the floor next to him.   Bare stone, and soggy straw.  It was a fetid pew indeed. He then lit a kerosene lamp that stood on a rickety table, unclipped a pair of handcuffs from his belt and left the building, slamming the door shut. It took no guessing what the metallic clatter was outside.  We were now handcuffed in.  

“He’s on his way to fetch his buddies” I said  with a laugh.  Joseph and Arthur didn’t reciprocate. Instead they sat there looking worried. A rather unsettling sight, given the fact I could hardly see their faces against the black sooty wall.  There were no ivory teeth framed by a smile.  Just the whites of their eyes, staring back at me.  I asked them what they thought we should do. Arthur after a long pause said. “The less of them involved in our arrest, the more chance we have of bribing our way out of this”.  I nodded.  “My sentiments exactly”.

Noises outside the door and the clanks of metal, shook us out of our stupor.  In marched three men. The guard and two with torches. Both came over and shone them into our eyes.  In the glare I couldn’t see them properly.  There were raised voices next, speaking Shona, Joseph and Arthur began to stand up.  I did the same, but was told to sit down.

My companions were marched outside, while I remained on the floor, covered by the familiar one with a grin on his face.  The hero guard. At least he probably thought he was. He seemed rather chuffed with himself for turning us in.  I realized they were outside to search the car.  In a matter of minutes they returned with my camera. Placed under the drivers seat, it was probably the first place they’d looked.

With everyone back inside and my camera and bag on the table besides the kerosene lamp, I was ordered to stand up, and join my comrades stood against the wall.  I thought of the Genesis album, And then there were three.  For there were three of them. Three of us.  Only they had guns. And we didn’t.  I thought about what it might feel like to get shot.  Someone told me once, if you take a bullet in the head at point blank, you don’t hear the bang.  You’re dead before your brain has the time to register the sound.  I recalled another anecdote.  Supposedly before your execution, a sense of peace, resignation and acceptance of one’s destiny prevails. You stare back at the barrel in a composed and dignified manner.  I had to admit to myself, I wasn’t feeling that calm when our sentry raised his rifle and pointed it at us.

They ordered us to turn around and face the wall and put our hands behind our back.  One stepped forward and handcuffed Arthur. I was last in line.  They snapped them on good and tight.  So tight in fact that within minutes they were hurting my wrists. Badly.  We were ordered down on our haunches, with our arms in front of us.  More discomfort as the crouching position began to pull on our achilles.  Rapid Shona speak ensued.  I was left out of the conversation.  I looked carefully at my companions, and instead of seeing calm, they were beginning to look more and more alarmed.  I consoled myself.  While the nightmare had begun, at least we were still alive!

CHAPTER 9

We went out Monday morning early and I shot pictures of the first lines of voters around various polling booths.  We just cruised by slowly and I would click off a number of frames.  We witnessed lines of Zimbabweans, many of them looking bedraggled and glum. Everyone knew what the outcome was going to be.  For the loyal it was merely a formality and duty to the party.  For the opposition it was just a complete waste of time.

By lunchtime we were back at the hotel. I asked reception if Helen had arrived.  They told me she was in her room.  I buzzed her and she answered in a sleepy tone.  “I’m exhausted” she told she me.  “Let’s meet for dinner and discuss the plans for tomorrow.  In the meantime, I suggest you head out again this afternoon with the lads, see what you can find.  Keep your phone on you and let me know if anything comes up I should know about”.  We were both on international roaming South African numbers.  Her words in hindsight were prophetic. For what came up later in the day was something that took Joseph, Arthur and myself, down. I remember with clarity she rang off with the words “be vigilent”.

By late afternoon we were back in Mbare.  As the light was fading the suburb took on an ominous vibe.  It was scruffy and downbeat. A few functioning street lights illuminated pot holed streets. It was now late March and the nights in Harare were getting chilly.  By 5pm with the sun below the horizon, I could feel the cool air wafting through the slit I had in my window to alleviate the stuffiness that came about from three of us with clammy hands.  

As we approached the corner of Ardbennie Rd and Adam Chiwida avenue, we saw ahead off to our right, a low wall surrounding a plot of land.  In the middle of that stood a large white pole tent. Given it was late there were very few people around, but we thought we’d have a look anyway. Joseph turned off Ardbennie and drove down Chiwida, following the wall.  It obscured my view for a clean shot, so I asked if he might try and see if there was another vantage point.  100 yards down, the wall did a 90 degree turn away from us, and a track followed it.  Joseph turned off the road, followed the track for not more than 20 yards, where we came to a large opening. There was no sign of the gate.   

Now for reasons I shall never full understand, but don’t appropriate blame,  Joseph, instead of stopping broadside to allow me to shoot off a bunch of pics on my telephoto, he turned abruptly through the gate. I had no time to shout stop!  He obviously thought I needed to get up closer to the tent still some ways back in the middle of the field. What he hadn’t seen was the guard, sat on the grass behind the squat wall, who upon seeing us, immediately jumped up.  My heart skipped a few beats, and I spun around to watch him. He leant back on the wall next to the rifle he had propped up against the bricks. He stared at us. We proceeded a few yards across the grass.  Joseph turned to me and said, “hurry up, take your pictures and let’s get out of here”. He looked embarrassed and worried at the same time. I shot 4 frames. We spun the car around and headed back to the gate, hoping the fella would just idly watch us exit.  Unfortunately that wasn’t the case.

CHAPTER 8

Back at the hotel when I got to my room, there was a text message on my phone from Helen. She was delayed, and would arrive midday on Monday, instead of Sunday evening. I dumped the days images on an external hard drive and locked it in the safe.  I slept well that night in a big comfortable bed.

The next morning after a leisurely breakfast, we were back on the streets of Harare. Tomorrow, Monday, was polling day number one, and so today there were large groups of Zanu supporters gathered in the city centre. Ready to set off in droves, to follow the ZPF party officials, who stood on the back of flat bed trucks with megaphones to blare out party propaganda and extol the virtues of 84 yr old President Mugabe. The great guerilla. One of Africa’s most celebrated freedom fighters. Yet so many Zimbabweans wished he hadn’t the constitution of a gorilla at all, and that he’d just fuck off and die. Everyone it seemed was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Robert Mugabe emblazoned across their front.  Morgan Tsvangirai’s face by contrast was conspicuously absent.  

By now I had got a lot more comfortable with the concept of been hidden in plain sight.  The tinted windows were doing their job.  I began to relax about lifting my camera up, bracing it again the window and shooting scenes happening just outside, or across the way.  

We could crawl along in our car, within the melee of people and traffic, and literally as giddy Zanu PF supporters, some of them wielding clubs and panga’s came dancing by the car, I would snap away.  We cruised around town, and the suburbs of Harare, ticking off a list of polling booth locations that Arthur had prepared. These were mostly tents set up in an open patch of land, or at a school or local town hall.  All Zimbabweans were been urged to come cast their ballot.   The only problem was, there were going to be mean looking Zanu PF militia types staring down the lines, and even it was rumored, standing next to you when you voted.  Nothing intimidating of course about having a thug with a baton, standing over your shoulder as you cast your ballot.  

I’m not going to rib on through much of the day’s events, because for the most part they were pretty uneventful.   Yes we ran into a few road blocks, but with my cameras hidden under the drivers seat, me dressed in a colorful shirt, casually reading a newspaper, as the curious fella in blue of green or khaki with the bolt action rifle peered in at us, our cute little ‘we are English teacher friends going out for a drink’ mantra got us waved by.  

Actually there was one event that day which stood out.  It was outside the South African embassy. Some MDC supporters had got into the grounds and were refusing to leave. A protest action to bring the media out so they could tell us through security fence that, these elections were not going to be free and fair.  With tv and local photographers lined up to cover what was going on, I felt emboldened enough to get out of our car, walk over and snap some pics.  It was only when I got back in and we drove off, did it appear it might have been a mistake. For Joseph after a few left and right turns, with his eyes on his rear view mirror, announced he thought we were been followed.  “The white car behind us” he said and I spun around to look.  A plain, VW Jetta was a little way back down the road.  “Hang a right” I suggested.  Joseph turned. Sure enough the Jetta took a lazy right turn too. Joseph kept straight for a while and then made a left.   The car had dropped back somewhat, so it took longer before it came into view. But sure enough, there it was again, and with it’s windows tinted an ominous Darth Vader black I could not get sense of who was inside. We made a few more cursory maneuvers, and then to our utmost joy, the car simply disappeared….

That night I had a comfortable nights sleep, but it was going to be my last for a while…..

CHAPTER 7

Mbare was way busier.  Lots of people milling about or loitering on the streets. Dilapidated cars parked against the pavements.  Some up on bricks, without wheels.  Houses side by side, with low walls, and broken fences.  Whiffs of smoke rising from smoldering piles of garbage.   Mangy dogs chained to poles. And music blaring from speakers out on the pavement. I saw lot of Mugabe Zanu PF posters up, and their flags hanging out of windows.  People were gathering for a rally it seemed as we got to one end of a street, in an area adjacent to a petrol station.  One that wasn’t selling petrol. The pumps were dry.  Supplies had run out.   In fact most stations around Harare where like that.  People had to sometimes queue for hours just to get gasoline at a few designated stations.

This was Saturday and we knew there were Zanu PF rallies planned on both days.  The idea today, was to try and avoid them, but tomorrow I’d decided I would need some picture of the fanfare.  Sunday was going to be a busy day.   

As we turned away from the crowds Joseph told me down the next street, to the left there was a Zanu PF militia compound.  I felt a twinge of nerves.  Joseph parked us directly across the road from it, and stopped the engine.  I felt naked and exposed in the back of the car, even with the windows tinted,  like I was  sat there in plain site.

I snapped a few pictures of the red brick building when two fellas in green tunics came out of the front door.  They seemed pretty chilled and walked off down the street.  We didn’t linger.  There seemed no point.  We were not going to get invited in for a cup of tea, and the longer we stayed, the longer we might draw attention.  If someone came and tapped on our window, found me in the back, very quickly we would be surrounded by those with lots of questions.  I knew how quickly things could change from uneventful to very eventful. I’d been in similar situations before in other parts of Africa.  Been a European usually was a blessing, people were genuinely interested in meeting, sharing their stories. But foreign journalists were regarded with a healthy dose of suspicion and most certainly, in the context of where I was, where we were parked, if I was asked to step out, my cameras found on the floor of the car, within seconds I would be in a lot of trouble.

I had the mornings evidence of beatings on my flash card, and now these pictures of a ZPF militia hang out, I thought it wise we called it a day, and head back to the hotel.  Time for a few Zambezi beers to calm us all down. Dump the data on the laptop locked in my safe.

CHAPTER 6

All across Warren park there were open plots of land, with freshly dug graves.  HIV and cholera were killing Zimbabweans at an unprecedented rate.  I factored in that some of these graves could well belong to MDC supporters who had probably died a grisly death.  Necklacing, a form of punishment copied from the townships of South Africa, was often meted out.  There was nothing glamorous about getting a necklace!  The last thing you saw was the the mob dancing around you, waving their panga’s and assegai’s, getting all excited about watching you go up in flames.  The car tyre placed over your head, and lodged around your arms and midriff, meant that all you could do was pogo up and down, ensuring the small reservoir of fuel inside the tube was sloshed around and evenly distributed, before someone struck a match and tossed it at you.

The area was eerily quiet. Half derelict small brick homes, with nothing green in either the yard or the street.  Not much sign of life at all.  Everyone was indoors it seemed. Maybe ‘out of sight, out of mind’ was the best way to stop militia types coming along and ruining your day.

Before long I could smell the landfill.  Its nauseating aroma greeted us well before we could see it.   When it did come into view, there were young boys, men and women in rags picking through the steaming fetid trash.  I asked Joseph to drive on past,  I didn’t want to draw too much attention to myself.  Instead I asked if could we find someone working alone, away from the tip, and approach them instead.   Sure enough another 100 yards down the road, we spotted a frail looking old man, wizened and in rags, sorting through a wire cart of things he’s scavenged from the dump.  We drew up along side him.  I turned around and scanned the road behind us.  Sat in the back behind our tinted windows, I was still feeling nervous I might have already been spotted by Mugabe goons and we were been followed.  Yes I was definitely been paranoid.  

Joseph wound down the window and began speaking to the old fella in Shona.  His hair and gnarly beard were grey.  The pupils of his eyes almost white.  His skin reminded me of elephant hide.  A dusty gunmetal grey.  He waved his hands in the direction of a group of women sat together, seemingly resting under the only tree on this stretch of road.  Joseph said “he’s just told me those women are MDC, and one of them had been beaten a few days ago”. We crawled forward another 100 yards, and repeated the same maneuver.  With the window down he told them we werew from the local newspaper.  Conversation continued for a while, until one woman in yellow stood up and came across to the car.  She pointed at her legs. I arched forward to my window to take a look. I saw red welts and what looked like cigarette stub burns on her upper thighs. She had lifted her skirt high enough for us to see.   My request was, would she come stand by my open door, so I could shoot some pics and yet remain in the car.  I wasn’t interested in pulitzer prize images, I told myself I was merely gathering evidence.  Evidence that was going to cause me a lot of undue stress in the coming days.

CHAPTER 5

Back on the Harare streets, through grimy car windows as we headed for a glass tint, I observed desperate people in a desperate city. The official unemployment rate was 80%. Hyperinflation was running at 200 million percent. Food production nationwide was running at a deficit of 1,000,000 tons. Everything was scarce. The streets were filled with lines of people queuing for basic commodities. For a can of kerosene, or a handful of potatoes. Most of the shops were practically empty of produce. The urban poor where especially vulnerable, and they were the ones standing in long lines. But the KFC was open and doing a brisk business to those dressed in suites, holding down government or office jobs. I offered the lads an early lunch. The tint shop was two blocks away. I’d sip a coffee, read the Morning Herald and wait for them to return.
We discussed over our three trillion Zimbabwean dollar burgers, that we’d first head out to Warren park. An area to the west of Harare, where one of the cities biggest landfill dumps was situated. A poor neighborhood. Opposition to Mugabe’s ZANU PF was running high and both Joseph and Arthur had heard about beatings and torture. We would try find some victims and get photos of their wounds or scars.

After that, later in the afternoon we would head for Mbare. Another poor, high density suburb, south west of the city center. Joseph would take me to shoot some of the houses that were used by ZANU-PF cadres and government-backed youth militia and “war veterans” to coerce, intimidate and torture MDC supporters. As the mission plan began to enfold, I realized I was about to put myself in grave danger. But I’d signed up for this. Helen would be arriving on a flight Monday morning. In just two days. At least I felt comforted by the fact that then we would all be in this together. She’d done more of this kind of reporting than I. She would probably steady my nerves somewhat.

CHAPTER 4

Joseph and Arthur were waiting for me by the window, sat together on a sofa. At least I guessed it was them as I sauntered into the lobby, clutching my camera bag. They didn’t look like plain clothes police or agents to me. At least I hoped they weren’t. For the moment of truth had arrived. I now had my surveillance gear in full sight. At least the bag anyway. I elected to keep the cameras concealed, since I saw no merit in showing them off, but it still made me wonder if I should be carrying them at all. Helen had specifically told me that anyone loitering around the hotel could be keeping tabs on who is coming and going and reporting back to special branch. And that it was best I didn’t show my cameras off at all. But heck, I still needed them with me. The bag looked innocuous enough. ‘Come on stop being paranoid’ I told myself.
The chubby one stood up first. He had a straggly beard, sported dreadlocks and was missing a front tooth. I noticed that when he greeted me with a smile while offering out his hand. “I’m Joseph”, he said, and then turned to introduce me to Arthur, who was leaner, tidier and looked older. I guessed they were in their early to mid 30’s. I sat down opposite them with a low table between us. I put my camera bag underneath it. I still felt uneasy about having it with me.

We got through initial pleasantries, and I was pleased to hear that they were seasoned fixers and knew their way around town. They were well aware of the risks and had played the game of cat and mouse a lot. Ultimately I felt I had to trust Helen. She had hired them, to keep us safe. She was a pro, so they must be too.

The game plan was that with the dark windows, I would not be seen in the back. It wasn’t much of a game plan. I just had to hope these two would steer us around the trouble. I suggested better they drop me off a block from the window tinting shop, and they sort it. I felt it a wise move, given an mlungu (white boy) standing around in central Harare, having his car windows darkened, might raise some eyebrows. Was I been paranoid I asked my hosts. Arthur chirped, “always better to be safe than sorry”.

The decision on car hire had changed. We would use their car, and they would bill Helen. That worked for me. In the basement parking we climbed into a dull red Toyota Corolla. On the back seat was a tatty Ndebele woven blanket. It had lost it’s vibrant colours. Was a much dulled down version of it’s former self. Joseph, as he started the car, turned to me. “If we run into a road block, you can hide under that”, he said, with a grin. I didn’t know whether to laugh at his remark, or feel alarmed. One thing was a given. I was totally in their hands and I was starting to feel nervous.

CHAPTER 3

As we trundled along the airport road on the north side of the suburb of Hatfield, I’d been making a mental note as I sat in the back of my Toyota taxi, that while this was regarded as one of the most affluent areas of Harare, it still had a shabby appearance.

There were the potholes. The street signs standing lopsided. Everything had a rather dusty and forlorn look about it. Then as we turned a bend, up ahead, I saw the road block.

Razor wire stretched across our path from left to right, with a gap in the middle. In the centre stood a policeman in fatigues. Behind him parked on the verge, on the right side of the road, was an old dark blue Landrover double cab and set down before that was something akin to a camping table where sat two more officers. As my driver slowed, I opened the copy of the Star newspaper I’d picked up in Jo’burg, and proceeded to nonchalantly read it as we came to a stop. With the window down, the policeman, clutching what looked like a bolt action Enfield rifle, peered in. First at the driver, and then at me.

I lowered my paper and greeted him. “Good morning officer, beautiful morning isn’t it” I said with a smile. He sized me up for a few seconds and then asked with a straight face. “On holiday or business, or do you live here?” “I’m on my to Bulawayo, but spending a night here in Harare,” I replied hoping it sounded genuine. He then looked back to the driver, exchanged a few words in Shona, wandered around the car. He’d asked to see in the boot. My driver hopped out and opened it. I sat nervously counting the seconds, hoping he wouldn’t want to rummage through my bags. The envelope of cash was in my suitcase. The boot closed again. My driver returned to the car. The policeman seeming satisfied, and waved us through. I let out a gush of air. I realized I had been holding my breath.

My last visit to Harare, 10 years prior, in 1998, on a job for a Joburg ad agency shooting for Barclays, I remember admiring it’s fairly neat and tidy appearance and languid calm. While we entered the city this time, it looked different. Way more bedraggled. Lots of people milling about. Zimbabwe’s unemployment had skyrocketed. People were now trying too eke out a living any way they could. Hawking stuff on the sidewalks seemed to have taken over from many of the shuttered shops. Unable to pay their rents, small business owners had been forced to pack up and leave. And there seemed to be a lot of security and police standing around with batons. As we drove up Jason Moyo avenue, I saw up ahead a rather fine looking building. The Meikles, Harare’s only 5 star hotel. It stood out against the backdrop of dishevelment.

I saw no sign of Arthur and Joseph as I strode across the rather smart lobby. I checked in and was shown to an equally spruce room. I locked all my important stuff, the envelope of dollars, laptop, passport and camera bodies inside the room safe. Then lay down on the comfy bed to wait for a call from reception. I guessed they would buzz me once my ‘accomplices’ had arrived. Had I known, as I lay there wallowing in the king size bed with crisp clean sheets, and the aroma of flowers, that within less than 48 hours my sleeping arrangements where going to be way shittier. Quite literally.

CHAPTER 2

The SAA 737 had been given a lick of paint, but there was no masking it’s age. I could tell from the slim, shiny, cigar tube shaped Pratt and Whitney engines and their deafening whine as we took off from Jo’burg international, that this old bird was a veteran of the skies and most certainly a carry over from the former Suid-Afrikaanse Lugdiens era. A plane that had most probably been parked on the apron when we, as a family, had arrived at Jan Smuts airport in 1975, emigrating to South Africa from the UK. Then regarded as Africa’s best airline, by 2008, SAA was on the slippery slope to bankruptcy and they were now flying their best planes to more salubrious destinations. Harare was not regarded as one of them.

The flight as I had expected, was almost empty. There was a smattering of African businessmen up front, and as I made my way to the back of the plane, I passed a few white folks huddled together in the middle seats, in blue vests, who I guessed were part of the UN election monitoring teams been sent to Zimbabwe to try and persuade Robert Mugabe to be fair and square. You know, treat his opposition with some degree of respect.

Wishful thinking however. For Morgan Tsvangirai, his main opponent in the elections, representing the MDC, (Movement For Democratic Change) and his supporters were been subjected to violent intimidation. Only a year earlier, he had been heavily tortured by a special forces unit based at the army’s Cranborne Barracks on 12 March 2007, after being arrested and held at Machipisa Police Station in the Highfield suburb of Harare.
I elected to keep to myself on the plane and later in the arrivals hall, for I felt it probably a wise decision, given my bogus tourist status, and while I had an alibi, I didn’t want to take any chances. Plain clothed Mugabe agents could be everywhere.

Harare in May, like Johannesburg, was cool and dry. The mid morning sun was out and bright, but as we walked across the apron to the terminal below clear blue skies, there was a notable chill in the air. I began to feel nervous approaching the rather shabby airport building, and hoped my ‘story’ would stand up to the test at immigration.

I had notified my two fixers Albert and Joseph, prior to my departure, by email that if asked, I was would tell immigration I was an English teacher, visiting two old work companions in Harare before taking a domestic flight to Bulawayo the next day. That too would give me an excuse should they search my bags and find cameras and telephoto lenses. I’d tell them I was a very keen wildlife photographer.

I approached the lone immigration officer, who looked at me through dark ray bans. He wore a plum colored beret and dark green tunic. He gave me the eeby jeebies. I handed him my passport. He thumbed through it, and hesitated. He flicked past my ID photo a second time, and then with a rather dead pan expression said, “British I see. What’s the purpose of your visit”? “Tourist” I said with conviction. He studied my face for what seemed like a rather long time. And then with a thud, stamped my passport.

After collecting my bags, and been waved uneventfully past two rather bored looking customs officials, I sought out the bureau de change in the empty and fusty arrivals hall. I wanted to change at least US$1000 into Zimbabwe dollars at the airport, to ensure I had enough local cash to grease palms should I run into a road block or two on my way into town. I anticipated a rather long exchange process. With the Zimbabwean economy in ruins, hyperinflation was at it’s zenith in 2008, at a ludicrous 89.7 sextillion percent. I wandered across to the dingy single bulb cubicle and peered in through the bars.

There in the gloom sat a fella in khaki. Above his head was a sign and upon it, in a handwritten scrawl, I read US$1 = Z$2,621,984,228.

I smirked a bit then and certainly chuckle to myself now, but thinking back, at the time it was no joke. I was actually in a hurry to get the hell out of the stare of security and the airport police. So when this fella in Khaki, stood up and presented himself at the window, and I could see as clear as day that he was missing an arm, and on his one outstretched hand, he’d pushed through the bars to collect my US dollars, he had only three fingers, I remember thinking, fuck, with this dude counting wads of Zimbodollars, I’m going to spend the rest of my life in front of him behind these bars…

CHAPTER 1.

Helen called me on the Wednesday and asked me in a rather hurried manner, if I would meet her for a coffee at the Radisson Blu, on Beach road, near Cape Town’s Waterfront the coming Sunday. She had another assignment for me, but there were risks she said in a matter of fact way. “It’s an all expenses paid gig to Zimbabwe covering the forthcoming elections, for the Mail on Sunday’ she began. “The tabloids are the only ones with money these days” she said with a laugh. It was agreed. 9am, on the verandah overlooking Table Bay.

We sat in dazzling sunshine. The sky an azure blue, and while it was a warm morning, fresh cool air drifted in off the ice cold Atlantic. It felt like a huge refrigerator door had been left ajar for our benefit. To keep us all feeling chilled. Out across the bay, one could see Robben Island, appearing to float magically on a thin ribbon of platinum colored sea mist.

Helen was an old Africa had. She had arrived in South Africa from the UK in the early 80’s, just as President PW Botha was winding up the apartheid regimes’s nefarious ways. The police state going into overdrive.
By March 2008, as we sat talking, she had covered the length and breadth of Africa, and was battle hardened. She said again in a rather flat manner, that Mugabe’s security police would be everywhere, and we were going to have to be very ‘undercover’. Roadblocks would be all over town, she lamented and discretion was tantamount if we stood any chance at all of not getting caught.

“We dress like tourists, act like we’re good friends” she said with a smile. “A charade yes but a necessary game plan if we are to stay out of prison” she said with a wink. I took a big gulp of my cappuccino as she uttered the P word. The arrivals protocol she outlined to me were;
I was to leave in a week on a South African airways flight to Harare and upon arrival change half of the US$10,000 in cash I was going to be given before departure, at the airport, into Zim dollars. “Get a cab to the Meikles hotel, where a room will be pre-booked for you. Your ‘guides’, Alfred and Joseph, will be waiting for you in the lobby” she said. “Once settled in, hire a car and darken the windows” she instructed. “I will arrive two days after you on a flight from Addis Ababa. While I’m away, have a good scout around, work out where all the polling booths are, and see if you can get photos of any opposition supporters who have been beaten by Mugabe’s goons”. She took a sip of her coffee. “Try not to get caught before I arrive” she said with a slight pursing of her lips.

After asking for the bill, she slipped a very large envelope across the table to me, and told me to be careful with the money. Smiling she stood up and said, “see you in Harare”.

Footnote:

There are some other points I’d like to make, based on a few comments privately presented to me from a few dear friends who still live in Africa.  They feel I am simply been disparaging and presenting a white man’s tale, and that this story only plays on the negative perceptions of Africa.  ie. it’s a basket case and a continent of savages. And that is not the reason I am telling this story the way I am at all.  I want to clarify a few things.

Firstly I love Africa and it’s people. For the most part they are warm, engaging, and their creative talents know no bounds.  I have had the most awesome experiences criss-crossing the continent.  However I am acutely aware of her problems and sadly the underlying tribalism in Africa, and in many cases Xenophobia, mixed with politics, are some of the ingredients that have sparked such horrific episodes of extreme violence and brutality. We the know ones I am talking about.   Cronyism and corruption, sadly too is still endemic and probably the biggest cause of her woes.  

Of course this is not unique to Africa. Religious and sectarian wars have been fought and continue to be fought all over the world.  Corruption, greed and stupidity is a global problem.  Ultimately I have a rather dim view on humanity overall, and my photographic projects you might have noticed, are for the most part painted with dark and dystopian hues.  

I tend to think a writers ploy, is to build a sort of mind eye’s view of a place where a particular story or series of events took place.  This is definitely meant to be a dystopian tale.  I am setting the scene, and building the suspense through a prism of dysfunctionality, and a creating a sense of foreboding. I am not making anything up. Merely focusing on the negative aspects of what I saw, how I felt.   Zimbabwe then in 2008 was at an extremely low ebb.  And I was very lucky not to get trapped there.

The chain of events that transpired during this ‘job’ I was assigned, were for the most part quite bizarre. Hence I feel it is a story I would like to share, and certainly I feel that what follows in the coming chapters could be lifted from the pages of a Hollywood script.  I wanted to write about the psychological trauma myself and my colleagues had to deal with when faced with the prospect of torture and long term incarceration.  It was a miracle a miracle I managed to escape, hence I press on with this very dystopian tale.  It could be my finest yet.  For the fact that it is set in Africa is a coincidence.  This could have happened in Afghanistan, Iraq or Beijing.


 
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