News in depth BY OBEY MANAYITI
The deadly army crackdown against civil society and opposition activists might have been paused, but relatives of some of the people that were killed by soldiers are living in fear following alleged threats by security forces.
Following the government’s spirited efforts to play down the number of people killed by soldiers, The Standard tried to track down some of the relatives of the victims to tell their stories, but many were too frightened to speak out.
In Harare’s Epworth area, Thandiwe Ncube’s relatives initially ran away from their home when our news crew arrived at their house last Thursday.
After a few minutes, one of the relatives returned after she was convinced that the journalists had nothing to do with the security forces.
Ncube, a 53-year-old MDC Alliance supporter, was allegedly run over by an army truck on January 14 in Eastlea on her way to join protests in the city centre against the steep fuel price increase.
Her relative only agreed to speak to the news crew on the strict condition that her identity was protected.
“The majority of my relatives are in hiding because we are being harassed,” she said.
The woman said the family’s ordeal began on January 14 when they received news of Ncube’s death.
“On January 14 at around 12 noon we received a call from an anonymous caller who told us that our mother, Thandiwe Ncube, had died after she was hit by an army truck near the Vehicle Inspection Department’s depot in Eastlea,” she said.
“She was a known MDC supporter and had left home in the company of other fellow party members to go and protest in the city centre.”
She said when they arrived at the scene, they were told that Ncube’s body had been taken to Parirenyatwa Hospital.
The family managed to identify Ncube’s bruised body the following day, but were not allowed to collect it for burial as police said they were still conducting investigations into what led to her death.
“People were afraid to volunteer information to the police because of the arrests that were taking place at the time,” the relative said.
“Police were actually threatening to arrest anyone that volunteered to testify as they would be deemed part of the protesters.”
Ncube was eventually buried on January 20 at Zinyengerere Cemetery after the family stopped insisting that she was killed during the demonstrations.
“We saw that the matter was dragging on and there was no solution in sight,” her relative added. “The family had to do what the police wanted.”
She said soldiers frequently monitored the situation during the funeral wake and relatives were warned against insulting the country’s leadership in their eulogies.
Ncube is survived by four grandchildren and the oldest is 11 years old. One of her friends, who also requested to remain anonymous, said she saw Ncube being run over by the army truck.
“We were on our way to the city centre to join the protests when she was hit by an army truck that was full of soldiers,” she said. “She died on the spot.
“A few brave people gathered tree branches to cover her body, which was left in the open for some time.
“Some people have been coming here to threaten us saying we must not talk about the incident.”
Epworth was the epicentre of the protests that coincided with a three-day stayaway called by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and #This Flag movement.
Residents readily pointed to houses where people died during the protests, but many were afraid to speak on record fearing harassment by the security forces.
In Mbare, 19-year-old Tawanda Bushu’s relatives said they were being visited by unknown people enquiring about his death.
“I cannot say the family does not want to talk to you, but I hope you understand our circumstances,” said one of Bushu’s uncles.
“Every day there are people coming here to ask about a lot of things and we don’t even know if they are genuine.
“We have accepted that Tawanda’s death is a loss that we have to live with.
“Such is life, but I think we are not ready to talk to you at the moment. What I can confirm is that Tawanda died.”
A climate of fear still pervades Mbare, but residents said they were relieved that soldiers had stopped their patrols.
Police spokesperson Assistant Commmissioner Charity Charamba requested questions about the alleged harrasment of families of people killed by soldiers but had not responded by the time of going to print.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa last week raised the ire of human rights campaigners when he told France 24 TV that there was no evidence that as many as 17 people were killed by the army during the crackdown.
He also disputed reports that 17 women were raped or sexually abused by soldiers.
The state-controlled media has been on a vicious campaign to discredit reports about the killings.
However, the international community has reacted strongly against the crackdown and the European Union parliament recommended tightening of sanctions against Mnangagwa’s regime last week.
The MPs urged “the Zimbabwean authorities to put an immediate end to abuses by security forces and to promptly and impartially investigate all allegations of excessive use of force by police and state officials in order to establish individual responsibilities, with a view to ensuring accountability”.
They also urged Zimbabwe to establish “an independent body to investigate complaints of police and military misconduct”.
Mnangagwa’s government was encouraged “to withdraw urgently all military personnel and the youth militia deployed across the country that are terrorising residents in clear violation of the Zimbabwean constitution”.
A report released by the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum on February 10 said 17 cases of extra-judicial killings allegedly committed by the army had been recorded so far.
The NGOs said since January 14 they had documented at least 1 803 violations committed by the security forces across the country.
They include at least 17 cases of rape or other violations of a sexual nature, 26 abductions, 61 displacements, 81 assaults consistent with gunshot attacks, at least 586 assaults and torture, inhuman and degrading treatment including dog bites, 954 arrests and detention (including dragnet arrests), among other violations.
Mnangagwa’s government has repeatedly denied that soldiers were behind the violations, but he promised to bring the perpetrators to book after Britain’s Sky TV recorded two police officers and a soldier brutalising a suspect during the protests.
The government blames the MDC Alliance for the violence that erupted during the stayaway and claims that protesters stole guns at police armouries, which they were using to kill people.
The army said it used force proportionate to the level of the threat posed by the protesters, who it says looted 165 shops countrywide, an assertion challenged by the NGO Forum report.
On August 1, soldiers killed six people in Harare after they opened fire on protesters that were demonstrating against what they said were delays in the release of the presidential elections results.
A commission appointed by Mnangagwa to investigate the killings, which was led by former South African president Kgalema Motlanthe, last December recommended that soldiers and police officers behind the killings must be prosecuted.