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Globe and Phoenix disaster: Fears of cover up as rescue operation is abandoned

news in depth:BY BRENNA MATENDERE

TWENTY SEVEN year-old Luckmore Hamandishe came face to face with death when a shaft collapsed at the Globe and Phoenix Mine in Kwekwe.

Hamandishe, who said he was among hundreds of artisanal miners that were underground when disaster struck, believes a lot of people perished despite the Civil Protection Unit (CPU) putting the number of the dead at three.

On Friday the CPU ended rescue operations at the mine where officially three people died and several were injured after being trapped underground.

The CPU said it could not establish the number of miners that were trapped.

Hamandishe said there were more than 200 people around the area when the accident happened and believes that government is understating the extent of the accident to protect bigwigs that were allegedly sending artisanal miners to their deaths at the abandoned mine.

According to survivors, a huge boulder moved at one of the tunnels at level four of the mine at around 10pm last Wednesday and the roofing of the shaft collapsed, trapping the miners.

“An underground level of a mine is about 35-40 metres so when we say level four, we are talking roughly of about 150 metres,” he said.

“That is where the disaster happened and I was about 15 metres from where the boulder fell. There were about 200 people on that level and only a few escaped.”

Hamandishe said there was a likelihood that there were people still trapped under the boulder. He said others might have drowned in a “dam” underground close to where the accident happened.

“Some people were pushed into the dam and I am sure they died through drowning,” he claimed.

“Others plunged into the dam as they tried to escape. When the water was splashed onto the walls of the mine, it became slippery and others who tried to scale up slipped into the water as well.

“A lot of bodies can be found if serious rescue operations are conducted.”

Hamandishe claimed some government officials made sure that the rescue operations were not thorough so that a few bodies would be retrieved and that would protect senior ruling Zanu PF officials who are allegedly behind the illegal mining activities at the mine.

Globe and Phoenix Mine is no longer officially operational and has been taken over by artisanal miners who often use unsafe mining methods.

“You must understand that it is illegal to mine here because the owners closed it down,” Hamandishe explained. “However, senior Zanu PF and government officials in Kwekwe have taken over the mine and they determine who goes underground and Zanu PF youths are the ones in charge of security at the mine.”

He claimed that police had failed to rein in the illegal miners because they fear censure from the political heavyweights who sponsor them.

“The godfathers have gold milling plants at their farms and that is where the gold ore is processed,” Hamandishe added.

On Friday relatives of the missing miners said they were being forced to pay as much as US$400 to people who were volunteering to go underground to search for bodies as the CPU had given up on the operation.

“We paid US$250 to some miners here, but they wanted US$400 so that they could go underground and search for the body of our uncle because we were told by people from his syndicate that he died,” said a man from Amaveni suburb who requested to remain anonymous.

“In the meantime, we have to bring them food as they continue with the search.”

Other miners claimed they had retrieved the body of a man they only identified as Kule Givy from Amaveni. They said he was very popular among the artisanal miners at Globe and Phoenix.

Some relatives who were observing the rescue mission from a distance said the government’s rescue operation was poorly coordinated.

“It is really painful,” said a man whose son was reportedly underground when the accident happened and had not been heard from since then.

“Some of the people trapped underground actually made the top officials behind their activities filthy rich,” he added.

“At this hour of need, we expected them to act.”

A day before the rescue operation was halted, the head of the CPU in Kwekwe Fortune Mupungu said they were trying to get “advanced equipment” from the Mines ministry for the rescue operation.

Mupungu, however, dismissed reports that his team had chased away artisanal miners who wanted to go underground to search for their colleagues’ bodies.

“We are actually trying to engage the Mines ministry officials so that they can come up with advanced equipment for the rescue operation,” he said on Thursday night.

Some artisanal miners claimed State Security minister Owen Ncube was one of the government officials behind syndicates operating at Globe and Phoenix Mine.

They claimed one of the minister’s nephews, only identified as Dhala, directed the syndicates’ operations.

Nick Mangwana, the government spokesperson, said allegations that there were attempts to hide the extent of the disaster were malicious.

Mangwana said the government had always been transparent about recent disasters and there was no need to deviate from the norm.

“The government will never under-report the number of Zimbabweans tragically caught in any disaster,” he said.

“There is no expedience in that. We proved it during Cyclone Idai when we gave the nation every single count, withholding nothing.

“But we don’t work with hype and hysteria, but information that comes from agents on the ground.”

Mangwana said in the past people had exaggerated the number of deaths from mining accidents and he cited the Battlefields incident where 28 artisanal miners died in flooded shafts at Silvermoon and Cricket 3 mines.

“In that disaster we were also accused of what you are accusing us of today,” he said.

Globe and Phoenix is the oldest gold mine in Kwekwe as it was pegged on the site of ancient gold workings in 1894 by prospectors Edward Thornton Pearson and Joseph Schukala.

The mine is located close to the Kwekwe central business district. Kwekwe Consolidated Mine Company, which was the last entity to officially mine gold, stopped operations at Globe and Phoenix in 2005.

Illegal miners that are allegedly sponsored by top government and Zanu PF officials in Kwekwe are allegedly allowed to make their way into abandoned shafts to hunt for gold and are shielded from arrest by the godfathers.

The artisanal miners come in large numbers from places like Silobela, Zhombe, Shurugwi and Gokwe and often don Zanu PF party regalia.

Zanu PF marshals who main the entrance to the mine allegedly bar anyone without the ruling party’s regalia from accessing the shafts.

The heavyweights behind the syndicates allegedly get 65% of the gold.

Kwekwe and the surrounding areas are rich in gold deposits and are popular with artisanal miners, known locally as “Makorokoza” or hustlers, who work in unsafe shafts using picks and shovels and generator-powered water pumps.

In the past month police have arrested hundreds of illegal miners involved in violent turf wars for mining claims.

— Additional reporting by Reuters.

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