Zimbabwe: Diary of Violence
August 2008

by Will Baxter

The day before the election in Zimbabwe I drove 30 kilometers outside Harare to Chitungwiza to photograph the funeral of a Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supporter. The man had been killed a few days before: he had been beaten to death by Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF thugs with metal pipes and iron bars.

© Will Baxter/WpN
Funeral for an MDC supporter who was brutally beaten to death by Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF supporters in Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe, Thursday, June 26, 2008.
I was traveling with fellow photographer Jason Tanner and we arrived at the cemetery just as the funeral was beginning. Dozens of people surrounded the grave, some sitting amidst grave markers, others standing atop the piles of red earth. A number of these people had buried other friends or family members in the previous days and there was a palpable sense of loss and raw anguish among their faces.

One by one, people took turns speaking about the man who had been killed. Some said prayers. Others led the group in song. With clinched fists, one woman repeatedly began shouting the words "God is the power, God is the power" as other mourners filed by the graveside to sprinkle handfuls of earth over the coffin.

The funeral had probably been going on for about 20 minutes when a truck pulled up carrying another coffin, this one surrounded by Zanu-PF party supporters. Since the violence was rather one-sided – carried out by Zanu-PF and "war veterans" loyal to Mugabe – this person was almost certainly not the victim of a political attack. Still, several of the mourners at the MDC funeral grew noticeably nervous.

© Will Baxter/WpN
A Zimbabwean youth who was attacked by Zanu-PF supporters the day before the presidential run-off election between Morgan Tsvangirai and Robert Mugabe in Harare, Zimbabwe, Saturday, June 28, 2008. Zanu-PF supporters burned the skin off his back with hot coals and boiling water and beat him across the face with an iron bar.
One man pulled me aside and told me that we should probably leave, that it wasn't safe. Shortly after that Jason told me that he'd bluntly been told to "go away" by a man in the Zanu-PF group. Our driver was growing nervous as well so after just a few more minutes of photographing, we left and headed back to Harare.

Almost anywhere you would want to photograph there was a danger of getting picked up either by the police or harassed by Zanu-PF supporters or "war veterans." The people we photographed and the people who helped us were also taking serious risks. Most of our fixers were also past victims. Some had had their homes torched or had had family members killed. Others had been subjected to torture at Zanu-PF 're-education' camps or were on government wanted lists.

The one time it really looked like we might be in trouble was after we'd been photographing the removal of 300 asylum seekers from the South African Embassy. The police had set up a roadblock on the street leading to the embassy manned by 20 to 30 riot police in full gear. It's illegal to work as a journalist in Zimbabwe without proper accreditation (which is almost impossible to get), so if stopped and searched, all three of us would probably have been arrested. But as we approached the roadblock our driver simply took it upon himself to put his foot down on the gas and drove straight through it.

© Will Baxter/WpN
A woman carries her child past an election poster for Robert Mugabe in Harare, Zimbabwe, Thursday, July 3, 2008.
Because of the frequent attacks there were large numbers of displaced persons as well. A huge number of people fled to South Africa but there were also smaller groups attempting to seek shelter at embassies and safe houses in Harare. Jason and I had been trying to gain access to the 2,000-plus displaced persons who'd sought refuge at Harvest House, the MDC headquarters, when we saw on the news that it had been raided by the police.

Apparently the people at Harvest House had been tipped off and the majority of those staying there had fled in the morning; that left people either too injured, too old or too young to flee. Of course, not wanting to leave empty-handed the police arrested these 60 people.

Later that night we got a tip-off from one of our MDC contacts that large groups of people were returning to Harvest House to escape the cold so we grabbed our gear and immediately headed downtown to try and get in.

Luckily when we got there someone inside was just opening up the gates to let a few people in. We entered as well and climbed a couple of flights of stairs to reach the areas where people were sprawled out on the floor under blankets. The rooms were packed with people spilling over into hallways and the waiting areas for the elevators, lying shoulder to shoulder across any available space. Having nowhere else to go, about 700 displaced persons had returned even though there was a rumor that Harvest House would be raided again the next morning. The place was so crowded it was difficult to imagine there had been more than 2,000 people staying here the night before.

© Will Baxter/WpN
Some 240 IDPs {internally displaced persons) gather outside the U.S. Embassy to seek asylum in Harare, Zimbabwe, Thursday, July 3, 2008.
We shot as quickly as we could only spending about a half an hour there, moving room to room and floor to floor. People were friendly but curious who we were. Many told us they and their children hadn't eaten anything since the previous day. Others simply showed us their casts and scars.

At the time of the election the number of recorded dead was only about 85 but the number of injured was in the thousands. It was difficult to gain access to the hospitals but I still managed to visit victims on several occasions and in every hospital I managed to get into I saw people with horrific injuries—people who'd been beaten until their skin had turned raw, people who'd had their feet crushed by metal bars or had broken their arms and wrists trying to protect themselves from attackers.

One young man pulled off his sweatshirt to show me where the skin on his back had been burned off by hot coals and boiling water. A family of white farmers told of how they had been kidnapped and tortured overnight. Another young woman spoke of being beaten on her genitalia with a metal bar because she'd fought back when Zanu-PF thugs tried to rape her on the morning of the election.

The "election," suffice it to say, was a complete farce—first with the intimidation and violence leading up to the vote and then with Mugabe's decision to go ahead with the election even though he was the only candidate.

Talks between the MDC and Zanu-PF regarding a power-sharing government are supposed to begin soon but at this point it's difficult to see any viable resolution to the situation in the near future. Meanwhile, inflation continues to soar, food is scarce and the people of Zimbabwe continue to suffer the rule of a despotic leader. Mugabe and a handful of his cronies are so desperate to hold onto power they appear to be ignorant of the fact that they're forcing the rest of the country to the brink of total collapse.

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© Will Baxter

Will Baxter is a 30-year-old photojournalist based in Bangkok. His work has been published by Newsweek, The New York Times, Washington Post, Le Monde, Le Figaro, Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph, Liberation and Internazionale. Will is represented by the agency World Picture Network.

E-mail Will Baxter: baxter515@gmail.com.

Please see more of Will Baxter's work at: http://www.worldpicturenews.com and his online portfolio at: www.lightstalkers.org/will_baxter.
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