Thursday, June 19, 2008


From an email to a friend:

First of all, the bad news. The rural areas here have degraded into total lawlessness -- genocide is no longer much of an exaggeration, according to the reports that trickle out. As Dzimbabwe (the international litigator here with whom I'm working) pointed out, Mugabe has never been known to bluff, so when he says that he won't give up power, he means it. The regime is desperate and has very little to lose -- they refuse to believe that MDC will actually offer them immunity from prosecution in exchange for a peaceful transition of power.

But there's good news, too. Harare is still a bubble, and MUST remain a bubble as long as the UN envoy and SADC election monitors are in town. Although the police have been shutting down the offices of various political groups, there haven't been any arrests that I know of (with the exception of a couple of very high-profile lawyers). I'm doing all that I can to keep myself safe -- I never drive here, as traffic stops can sometimes result in arbitrary arrests. I know one of the partners at a private law firm upstairs, so when things get hot I go up there and work from their library. I'm a few doors down from the back stairs in case of an emergency. Most importantly, I'm a white American -- the police are not inclined to make serious trouble for whites who don't pose a major threat, and even less inclined to make trouble for Americans. I know they gave the Ambassador trouble a while back, but he has been going out of his way to expose the people in power, and he has the clout to really do it. Unless the police actually come to our office, which is extremely unlikely, there's really no way at all that they would discover me. I'm only seen for a few seconds as I leave Louise's car every morning to come into the building, where I claim to be working for my friend at the private firm -- he'll vouch for me if it's necessary.

Also, it's important for you to know that I'm NOT participating in the crisis work that's going on here. I'm working on a law suit being filed in the African Commission for Human and Peoples' Rights on a ZANU-PF initiative from a few years back. I'm not going to courtrooms or prisons -- in fact, ZLHR, has pretty much stopped representing people itself as it's too dangerous, instead recruiting private attorneys who aren't known.

As for my own threshold, I have honestly lost track of it. I exceeded what I thought was my threshold about two months ago: first I thought that if the elections didn't go smoothly I wouldn't come; then that if there was a crisis I wouldn't come; then that if there was violence I wouldn't come; then that if political groups were targeted I wouldn't come. All that happened (and worse), but here I am. At this point, I feel totally at sea. The other night I had lunch with a couple who work with torture victims throughout the country, who have returned from forced exile despite the danger, and who continue to publish rigorous, damning reports about torture under the auspices of an officially banned organization. I had a long talk with the directors of Doctors for Human Rights, who document the injuries of victims of political violence, despite the fact that the police periodically purge the hospitals of MDC supporters. Two of my bosses have been arrested and beaten in years past, but they keep doing their thing. Hell, my fellow intern from the University of Zimbabwe got a visit from the Central Intelligence Organization the other day telling him to shut down his Catholic Peace and Justice Commission and that they'll be keeping a close eye on him, but he's holding another meeting tonight, with God only knows what results. So you see, if I'm looking for guidance as to when I should think about pulling out, I won't really find it here. Nobody will judge me or think less of me at all if I turn tail, but nobody's going to do it before me either, so I'm sort of on my own.

Now, these people really suffer. Not like the people who are being beaten and tortured in the countryside, but still -- it's very evident that they're struggling just to keep their heads above water, always just about to be overwhelmed with the things that they see. But when I see them at dinners and parties, it's also evident that they have a real capacity for joy. That's really where I begin to gain some sense of perspective on what's happening here. When I read about the courts or the police, which have become political weapons, I find myself unable to wrap my head around the fact that people continue arguing cases and filing motions and all that. But it seems to me that it's just another way of trying to turn things right-side up in this country. The fact is that the police here do absolutely anything they want, utterly unencumbered by any consequences. But maybe the constant pressure on them to act lawfully highlights their lawlessness. Anyway, life goes on.

It's easy enough to rationalize my being here. Seeing as how bad things can happen anytime -- car accidents, muggings, diseases, etc. -- there's no sense being timid. If I were a short story writer (and I hope sincerely that God is not one), I would have myself come home from Zimbabwe for fear of things to awful to contemplate, only to get run over by some stock-broker's Beamer while crossing Palmer Square to get to the ice-cream store.

Already I feel like I've been here forever, even though it's only been three and a half weeks. Frankly, I keep expecting someone to look up and ask me why I'm still here and what on earth I think I'm doing. But nobody is doing it -- they long ago lost any sense of cognitive dissonance, arguing cases in courts that have been hopelessly corrupted, or living the life of a middle class professional under the sword of Damocles. I guess everyone who could be scared away already has been, and the only people left are people with a bottomless capacity for coping. And people who have no choice but to cope, people without money or education or connections enough to run away.

The ZLHR lawyers have developed an incredibly dry sense of gallows humor. Tafadzwa is like the Dread Pirate Roberts -- every night when he goes home, he says "Good night everyone. I hope to find you all here when I come back. If I come back." Dzimbabwe was bragging that he's just one arrest away from landing a cushy job teaching human rights at a Western university. He's been antagonizing the Commissioner of Police -- an extremely dangerous thing to do -- to get back some papers they confiscated at the airport several weeks ago, and the letter he got back was the subject of much mirth in the office. David (the student leader being monitored by the CIO) spends all day cracking jokes about "Our dear Bob."

Hm. This email is neither short nor reassuring. I keep doing that -- starting a brief note to a friend and looking up 1,000 words later without having related much more than musings. I really will write later with some more day-to-day news -- honest!

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