A Journalist Bears Witness To Mugabe's Massacre

March 30, 2011

Peter Godwin is the author of five nonfiction books, including When a Crocodile Eats the Sun.

When journalist Peter Godwin snuck into his native Zimbabwe after President Robert Mugabe lost a 2008 election, he writes that he expected "to dance on Robert Mugabe's political grave."

But that was before Mugabe — the then 84-year-old leader of Zimbabwe — refused to give up power. And it was before Mugabe insisted on a runoff election between himself and the leading opposition candidate, Morgan Tsvanigirai, and then unleashed armed supporters on anyone affiliated with the opposition party, called the MDC. Dubbed "Operation Let Us Finish Them Off," Mugabe's campaign tortured tens of thousands of Zimbabweans and killed hundreds more.

Godwin secretly stayed in Zimbabwe, visiting opposition leaders, white farmers whose land had been confiscated by Mugabe, and villages that had been burned beyond recognition. His details his time on the ground bearing witness to Mugabe's torture — and remembers his own childhood in the African nation — in The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe. The title, he writes, comes from the word chidudu — meaning fear — which Zimbabweans used to describe Mugabe's torture campaign to intimate those who voted against him.

"They tortured tens of thousands of people," Godwin tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. But interestingly, they didn't kill thousands of people. They killed hundreds of people but they tortured vast numbers of people. And then they released them back to their communities so they acted like human billboards — they were advertisements for what happens if you oppose the regime."

Godwin also visited hospitals where ward after ward and floor after floor housed torture victims with defensive wounds, mainly from staving off machete or ax attacks.

"It got to the stage where, when I was interviewing [the victims,] I knew what they were going to say next because I had spoken to so many others," he says. "It was such a pattern. It was literally like a torture factory."

By reporting the story, Godwin says, he hopes that the story of the Zimbabwean massacres each a wider audience.

"By banning Western journalist and by generally making it very hard to report and making [Zimbabwe] very hard to access, Mugabe had managed to smother the story," he says. "The story of these atrocities and this human rights abuse is not nearly well-enough known as it should be. ... And I think that the stories that these people tell, ... I found, utterly inspirational and I felt ashamed in a way for not doing more."


Interview Highlights

On why Zimbabwe was ranked last in the international survey "What country is rated as having the unhappiest people on Earth?"

"They came out bottom but they have many, many reasons to be that unhappy. ... It's collapsed in the last 11 years and, I've been told by economists that it's been the most precipitous contraction of any economy in peacetime that they've seen. In 2000, it went into this death spiral and it started with the invasion of commercial agriculture but really what happened at that point was it triggered hyperinflation. So by 2008, for example, the Zimbabwe dollar was halving in value every 24 hours. So basically you just couldn't hold money. ... [Also] at it's worst [the life expectancy] went down into the late 30s and that was a lethal cocktail of HIV/AIDS, of lack of nutrition — at one point 70 percent of rural Zimbabweans were relying on a form of food aid — so you had these Zimbabweans who were already very, very ill and if they got HIV/AIDs, they tended to die very quickly. [There was also] a complete and utter collapse of the entire healthcare system. These torture victims that I write about got to hospitals to discover that there's no electricity, there's no running water, there's no drugs and the staff are all on strike."

On meeting Mugabe's spiritual leader at a party

"On the one hand, I wasn't supposed to be in Zimbabwe and I didn't want to blow my cover. But on the other hand, I thought it was an opportunity that had been handed to me. This was right at the beginning of the torture where I could actually tell him what had been going on and see if there was any way that he could intercede with Mugabe. This is somebody who saw him often, who clearly had his ear. So I told him what was going on and he was clearly embarrassed and trying to get rid of me. I just sort of clung to me. I made him promise to come to one of the hospitals. I would show him round the next day. Of course, I never expected him to show and I called him and called him and got no reply. ... Eventually he did show up and I walked him through the wards, getting each person to tell their stories to him, so I knew, at least, that he knew. It was quite interesting watching him. By the end of it, he looked absolutely kind of ashen."

On watching NATO enforce a no-fly zone over Libya

"I can't help thinking that a reason that nobody talks about intervening in Zimbabwe is that it's not considered strategic. So it lacks the two trigger exports that would gain an intervention and those exports are oil and international terrorism. It doesn't export either of those two things that tend to attract Western intervention."

On his father's cremation

"As he was dying, he did ask me for one thing and that was that he wanted to be cremated. And I was so preoccupied organizing the funeral — nobody had fuel to get there and we couldn't find any flour to make the cakes — and suddenly after the funeral, 'I thought I need to make a booking at the crematorium,' and called up the crematorium and they said, 'No, no, we don't have any gas — any butane — we haven't had it for weeks and weeks.' ... I phoned the Hindu Society and asked them if I would be allowed to burn his body myself on a funeral pyre. They said eventually that I could do it but as the eldest son, I would have to be the person who actually did it. So we built a huge funeral pyre and the undertakers delivered the body there and I lit it and it burned for 24 hours." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.