Zimbabwe: eyewitness report on a week of Christian witness

 A correspondent in Bulawayo has sent this eyewitness report charting the events of 26 February - 1 March, in which there were a number of prayer services and protests by churches around the country. That was the week, that was! What an eventful seven days, and how significant for Zimbabwe too. The insolent tyranny of this minority, illegitimate regime has been exposed again for all to see. At the same time those progressive forces working for freedom and democracy have found a new confidence and new hope that perhaps the dawn may not be so far away as once we thought. Here are a few highlights of events in which I have been personally involved: Sunday Our morning service at Hillside Methodist Church was visited by a television camera team from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Much of the service was recorded as were conversations with members of the congregation afterwards. The ABC crew proved to be well informed about the crisis, sensitive to the dangers and only too willing to do their part in revealing the real Zimbabwe to the world. Monday A small group from 'Christians Together for Justice and Peace' took their protest to the Queens Ground where the ICC one day international between Australia and Zimbabwe was being played. The group numbered about 20 and we were pleased to have with us for the first half hour or so Archbishop Pius Ncube who has become a symbol of the resistance to ZANU PF tyranny. There was a huge security presence in and around the grounds, comprising police on horseback, the uniformed police, a private security service, the riot squad, and a massive CIO (intelligence service) presence. Severe restrictions had been placed on what could and could not be taken into the grounds and those entering were subjected to a full search. Once inside the ground we put on black arm bands and attached black crosses to the white shirts and tops we were wearing. The black arm bands were in solidarity with the two Zimbabwean players, Henry Olonga and Andy Flower, who wore the same during the first one day international in Harare as a token of mourning at the death of democracy in this country. The black crosses were to mark us as members of Christians Together. We had also smuggled into the ground two banners which we unfurled, reading simply 'Justice and Peace' and 'Christians Together'. Our presence in the ground drew great interest from the international press and they in turn assured our safety during the match. Some of our members were followed from the ground and others intercepted by the CIO after the match but no one from our number was arrested. Although those watching the match on television may have been quite unaware of our presence the assembled press told us we were making news around the world. A parable if you like of the huge gulf which exists between the respectable image of the country this regime goes to any lengths to portray and the bitter reality. (The official camera crews covering the match were under strict instructions to keep the cameras trained on the game on the field rather than on the more entertaining events taking place off the field.) For our part we learnt after the event that a number of arrests had been made (the unconfirmed figure I have is 39) of students and other brave protesters, the CIO avoiding the cameras by carrying out most of the arrests while the news crews were taking their lunch. I was one of those who campaigned vigorously for the one day internationals not to be played in this country. England eventually decided on this course. The others have gone ahead, and I must say that at the end of the day we have gained at least as much by these matches being staged here as we might have hoped for through a total boycott. A window of opportunity has been opened to show the world what is really happening in this country, and such opportunities do not come along too often. Wednesday A meeting with some Church leaders from Mutare with whom Christians Together in Bulawayo have forged a useful alliance. Among our visitors were the Anglican Bishop of Mutare who is also President of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (Sebastian Bakare), and a Bishop of the Pentecostal Assemblies, also President of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe (Trevor Manhanga). Much common ground exists between us on issues of human rights, good governance, justice and peace. Thursday There was an opportunity for Christians Together to interact with a delegation of Church leaders, human rights activists and journalists from South Africa. In the evening we all attended a service of prayer for the victims of torture. Worshippers who included scores of victims nearly filled St Mary's, the large Catholic Cathedral. During the service we heard harrowing accounts of brutal torture including that inflicted on the MDC MP Job Sikhala, and on a 21 year old woman. During a horrendous ordeal in police custody Job Sikhala was subjected to electric shock treatment applied to his toes, genitals, mouth and ears. He was also forced to drink a concoction of urine and poison. The young girl was forcibly conscripted into a ZANU PF training camp in 2001 and after being trained in hate and violence was subsequently raped by other youths. As a result both she and her one year old baby are now confirmed HIV positive. At extreme risk to herself she gave full details and named names of those responsible, including the ZANU PF commander who provided 12 year old girls as a reward to some of his political proteges. Candles were lit from a large Amnesty International candle and there was a seemingly endless procession carrying wooden crosses to the altar, each one in memory of a victim who did not survive. Altogether it was a very moving ceremony and quite a few of those who participated were reduced to tears. Bishop Rubin Phillip, the Anglican Bishop of Natal brought a message of support and solidarity from the Church in South Africa. The service lasted about three and a half hours and when it ended special measures had to be taken to evade the cordon of CIO officers around the Cathedral and spirit the courageous victims who had given their testimonies away to safety - which means into hiding from the police. Special concern was expressed for the young woman who had given the names for those responsible for various atrocities. Undoubtedly she will have to go into exile outside the country to save her life, and with a view to one day giving evidence to convict some of the perpetrators of these dastardly deeds in a free Zimbabwe. (I would love to share with you how she was spirited out of the Cathedral under the very eyes of the CIO but I cannot do so at this point without compromising the safety of those who arranged the escape) Friday After the service on Thursday evening the CIO had been waiting to interview Archbishop Pius. When they learnt that he was accompanied by other clergy they went away, but they were back again early on Friday morning. Fortunately a number of the South African Church leaders were still on hand and others of us from Bulawayo rallied to be with him. After a short interview the CIO left, but there is little doubt they will be back again before too long to continue harassing and intimidating the Archbishop. Such is the cost of standing against this pernicious regime. On the same day we learnt of the arrest of 23 Church leaders in Harare who were intercepted on their way to present a petition to the Police Commissioner protesting at police tactics including unlawful arrests and the violation of human rights. Friday also saw the one day international between Zimbabwe and Holland played in Bulawayo. I was not present on this occasion because I was conducting a funeral in the afternoon when a number of spectators from the crowd raised a pro-democracy banner and began an anti-Mugabe chant. The police moved in and made a number of arrests. Numbers are not yet available because the police are not providing ding any information but from our own calculations we know that! t least 40 men women are being held at four different police stations around the city. They face the prospect of at least three nights in the filthy, over-crowded police cells before being produced in the Magistrates, Court - if indeed the police decide to charge them. Saturday No crisis yet today, but who knows what might happen before the day is out. (I hope I am available to conduct a wedding this afternoon!) Such is a week in the life of a minister serving in Zimbabwe today. And if you are asking yourself what possible cause anyone could have for rejoicing in such a week and finding new hope in it, the answer is quite simply the exposure of the evil it has given.. That and the signs that a growing number of Zimbabweans, black and white, have had enough and are finally saying "Enough is enough!" From Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others we know that when a sufficient number of people are willing to go to prison if necessary to resist institutionalized violence and gross injustice, the citadels of power begin to tremble. Perhaps we are approaching that critical mass now which will make change unstoppable. The days of the dictator are numbered.

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