Here is the second part of my “Losing all my Coffee Cups” story. It is the story of how I had to draw on all my reserves of resilience to survive. The story of my intimate acquaintance with adversity, injustice, squalor, the most unpleasant and potentially frightening experience of my life.
I was taken into the security police commander’s office and made to stand while being interrogated for several hours by up to 5 people at a time. Although I was not physically tortured, it was an intense experience with much shouting, accusations of many crimes and racial insults. My anger overcame my fear and I had to make a supreme effort not to worsen my situation by calling them the murderers terrorists they were. I have the names of the commander and some of the others safely recorded, it is my hope that I will have the opportunity to see them brought before a Human Rights court for what they did to hundreds of innocent black and white people in Zimbabwe. I am not holding my breath that it will happen.
In preparation for having to leave our farm, we had moved many of our personal items to a safe place at a friend’s house in the village. That included our passports, firearms licences, jewellery, other personal and business documents. We had also started burning all the documents we did not need to keep. Unbeknown to us, one of our house servants had been intimidated by the political thugs to search for any thing in our house that could be used against us.
The story of my parents ambushes by terrorists in 1979, my mother’s injuries in the first and my father’s murder in the second have been recorded elsewhere on this blog. After WWII, my father had served for a short period in the Palestine Police. He was on the ex members mailing list of that organisation, after his death, my mother had received a letter of sympathy from the secretary and a copy of its magazine which included an obituary for my father. The obituary commented on his bravery in fighting off the 9 terrorists in the first attack and saving his and my mother’s lives. This magazine had been in the pile of papers we had intended burning, but had been stolen by the housemaid (not the honest and brave woman mentioned in the previous post) and handed to the people who were attempting to force us off our farm. They in turn handed it to the security police..
Because it contained the words “Rhodesia” and “terrorists” – both completely accurate descriptions and correct at the time, it was considered proof that I was an enemy of the state, intent on subverting the government’s re-distribution policy, a white oppressor and a long string of other accusations.
The magazine was produced during my interrogation, I was told to sign a confession that I was an enemy of the state and that I would be released. I did not fall for that one. It only increased my anger. Imagine for a moment the emotion induced by having your father’s obituary used against you by members of the same group of terrorists who had murdered him. (Most high-ranking members of the police and especially the security police, were former terrorists loyal to Mugabe’s ZANUPF first and the government second.)
At some point in the afternoon, they took a break. Sue had been waiting outside in the parking area, I was allowed to talk to her, I gave her my cell phone, wallet, truck keys and asked her to get help to take my truck away before it was vandalised in the police station parking area or stolen. (Both distinct possibilities). She also told me that our lawyer had been trying to get me released but that I would almost certainly be arrested and put in a cell for the weekend or longer. My son was on his way and would stay at the farm with Sue to protect her as we feared that the attempts to remove us would intensify in my absence. I was relieved that I had the foresight to arrange for extra security guards to guard the house a few weeks before.
I was told that I was to be taken to our farm so that our house could be searched and the “arms of war ” confiscated. I had valid gun licences for all our weapons, but for safety, they had been left with our other documents in the village. The police handcuffed me and loaded me into the back seat of a filthy completely unroadworthy, Landrover SUV. A regular (and polite) policeman with an AK47 on either side. The driver and another armed policeman in front. Handfuls of maize (corn) kernels littered the floor and the seats, no doubt remnants of bags stolen from another farmer. One door would not close, a policeman held it shut for the whole journey.
Sue had left before this, she would spend the rest of the afternoon with friends until the police had finished the farce of “searching” our farm. I watched her leave and wondered when or if I would see her again. At this point, my over-riding emotion was anger not fear, yes I was nervous about what lay ahead but not paralysed by fear.
After a very bumpy and fast trip, way over the speed limit, we arrived at our farm, my 6 dogs sensing I was in danger, wanted to attack the police. I told them that I would have to enter the security gate first or the dogs would bite them. I was allowed to enter and put the dogs in the lounge. Although I had no illegal weapons, I remembered I had found a complete set of my old Rhodesian Army camouflage uniform when packing away valuables. It was in a carton in my stepdaughter’s bedroom. I had kept it for old time’s sake and because it would have had some value as a collector’s item overseas. Although not technically illegal, I knew that given the circumstances, it would complicate my situation if it was discovered.
While in the house, I quickly put our largest dog, Brutus, a mastiff / German Shepherd cross in that bedroom. I then let the other dogs out one door and the police in through another. I showed the police my weapons, all securely locked in my steel gun safe, told them that the licences were in the village and that they could be produced the next day.
It became obvious by the cursory nature of the search that the police knew there were no “arms of war” in the house, that the search was just another attempt to intimidate both me and my farm workers. Brutus saved the day by barking ferociously when the police opened the door to that bedroom, I held him against the carton containing my army uniform while they rifled through my stepdaughter’s underwear drawers. That made me so mad that I was tempted me to let him go and attack them, but it would have got him shot and not helped my case. Brutus’s continual barking and attempts to bite the closest policeman persuaded them to cut their search short, load me back into the Landrover and return to the police station in as reckless and dangerous a manner as we had arrived.
On arrival back at the security police offices, I was told that I was being arrested and would be detained in a cell for the night. When I demanded to know with what crime I was being charged, I got no answer – I never was charged with any crime.
I was taken to the main police charge office, made to take off my shoes and socks, belt and watch. I was told that I could keep one article of upper body clothing only. I chose to surrender my shirt and keep my light jacket because a) it was warmer, and b) had more pockets to hide cigarettes, matches and sweets. ( I still smoked then, as did most stressed out farmers). I was issued one thin, dirty blanket.
Then I was led into a yard behind a high security fence, to a row of 3 cells two large ones of about 3m x 3m (12′ x 12′) and a smaller one of 3m x 2 m. The heavy steel door with a small grill at eye level was opened and I was pushed inside to join about 15 earlier occupants. I was the only white man.
The steel door slammed shut, I greeted my fellow cell-mates. The very fact that they were there at all re-assured me, they could not be supporters of Mugabe’s brutal campaign of intimidation, to have been arrested, they had to be either members of the opposition or ordinary criminals held until their relatives came up with whatever combined bribe / bail was demanded. Few would see the inside of a courtroom in the short-term, the cell population fluctuated continually, new victims arriving and older ones being released or transferred elsewhere. At one time, I counted 27 people in that small room, too crowded for all of us to lie down and sleep, we spent most of the time standing or sitting with our legs drawn up to our chins.
In one corner of the cell was an open-pit toilet directly above a waste pipe running along the back of the row of cells. The stench was awful. By unspoken agreement we did not use it, waiting until the two meal times each day when we were let out, to use an external, equally disgusting toilet. That removed a few square feet from the usable floor space. The floor was very dirty, the cell very dark with only a small heavily barred window high up on the back wall.
Not a pleasant experience and definitely one to test the resilience of any one.
The fact that I was the only white man was not a problem, we all had a common enemy, Mugabe and his thugs. Although I did not know any of the other inmates, they knew I was a farmer and a large employer, they all took great trouble to quietly tell me how much they disagreed with what was happening. It was interesting that many of the new arrivals would come to me for advice on how to get out of their own difficulties with the police. My standard reply was that I was in more serious trouble than them so they should not be seen to be too friendly with me. I was also careful about saying too much as it was a known tactic of the security police to put spies into cells to trap people into making anti-government comments.
The single light bulb was switched on at dusk and switched off at about 10 pm. Sleep was difficult that first night because of the cold, hard concrete floor, the overcrowding, the smell and the noisy opening of the steel door every half hour or so to let in or remove people. I did get some sleep, most of the time I spent wondering how long I would be there for, would I ever see my home again ( to this day I have not), what would we do for the rest of our lives. How would we survive assuming I did get released in good enough condition to work or start a business somewhere else in the world. I was very concerned about where we would go, at our ages of 52, we could not afford to take another chance in Africa. We had British passports but did not see good prospects there.
We were not permitted to smoke in the cell, we had been told to surrender all our cigarettes and matches or lighters. Although I had left my cigarette packet with my other things earlier, I had hidden several cigarettes in the many pockets of my jacket, I had also torn of the abrasive strip of a matchbox and hidden that with several loose matches. When I felt the need for a cigarette, I smoked half and then gave the remainder to one of the other smokers, he would have a drag and pass it on. That small gesture was much appreciated by people who could rarely afford to buy filter cigarettes, generally smoking scrap tobacco rolled in newspaper.
One alleged murderer was thrown in the cell that night, he was still there when I left. Another arrived bleeding from several wounds on his face and head, he said he had been beaten by the police, one had been caught with 2 bream fish he had poached from a government dam. He had been beaten so badly on the soles of his feet he could hardly walk. The following day at a meal break, he over heard two guards saying how much they had enjoyed his fish the previous night. He seemed more upset at the loss of his fish than spending the night in jail. He was released later that day, perhaps from lack of evidence?
That was my first night in the police cells in Marondera, it was not a pleasant experience, it certainly did test all my reserves of resilience and endurance. Following Napoleon Hill’s maxim that every adversity carries the seeds of opportunity, I tried to find something positive in the experience. I found it in the camaraderie amongst my fellow detainees, the total absence of hostility towards me, a white farmer, wealthy in their eyes beyond comprehension, most of them would never own a car or a cell phone, many would never live in a house with indoor plumbing. Despite that, we were all united as victims of a brutal dictatorship presided over by one of the most evil men in Africa.
It also made me appreciate that no matter how bad we think our situation is, we don’t have to look far to find people far worse off. If I got out alive, even if I lost all my assets (as I did) I still had friends, family and other resources to leave and live in a safer country. The others in that cell did not have that luxury, they were condemned to live in poverty and fear, given the situation in Zimbabwe today, many of them will have died already even though I was the oldest of them all.
Part three of this story will follow.