By Dingilizwe Ntuli
Today marks 20 years since 13 football fans perished in a stampede at the National Sports Stadium during a World Cup qualifier between the Warriors and their trans-Limpopo rivals Bafana Bafana.
To some it is a long forgotten tragedy, but to those that lost loved ones in it and those that were injured, and to a certain extent some who escaped unscathed, events of that sunny Sunday afternoon continue to haunt them two decades later.
No one could have foretold that a day that had started so well would end with six-year-old Alec Fidesi tragically losing his life together with Sam Mavhuro, Killian Madondo, Tonderai Jeke, Patrick Mpariwa,
Tawanda Gwanzura, Joyce Chimbamba, Eularia Made, George Chin’anga, Enock Chimombe, Ronald Kufakunesu, Benhilda Magadu and one T Makonese.
Their tragic deaths make July 9, 2000, the darkest day in Zimbabwean football deserving of some commemoration by the game’s domestic governing body Zifa.
Unfortunately Zifa officials have been busy squabbling over the years to think of doing a noble thing to keep the memories of the victims of that horrible stampede alive.
That has been left to the media, which tracks relatives of the departed and some survivors to remind the nation of that dark day when tragedy blighted the beautiful game in Zimbabwe in the first year of the new millennium.
But what actually happened at the National Sports Stadium on Sunday July 9, 2000?
Zimbabwe football lovers were still suffering from the hangover of the Dream Team of the mid-1990s which always fell at the final hurdle in both the Africa Cup of Nations and World Cup qualifiers.
Despite what seemed to have been a spell cast on the Warriors by their late Ghanaian coach Ben Koufie, who angrily declared in 1991 that Zimbabwe would never qualify for a major tournament even if they hired a coach from the moon, fans remained hopeful that one day the Warriors would break the jinx and qualify for their first major continental tournament.
Of course Koufie hadn’t cursed the Warriors, but spoke out of anger after being unceremoniously dismissed as head coach.
Despite Koufie’s “prophecy” holding for nine years after his angry utterances, Bafana Bafana were in town and the match had been hyped up in the media, and was the talk of Harare during that week.
It seemed every football fan wanted to watch Bafana Bafana stars Quinton Fortune, who was playing for Manchester United then, as well as Barnsley players Eric Tinkler and Shaun Bartlett.
The Warriors, of course, had Peter Ndlovu, who was turning out for Birmingham City, and besides South Africa looking invincible on paper, fans were hopeful Zimbabwe could cause an upset. Nothing would have been sweeter than beating South Africa.
Fans started making a beeline for the National Sports Stadium well before the gates opened since it was obvious the match would sell out. There were no prepaid tickets in the year 2000 and queues started forming as early as 8am.
Talk in the capital that day was all about the match and even non-football lovers weren’t spared despite their lack of interest and repeated protestations against the game’s conversations.
I left home in The Avenues at around midday and hooked up with a friend who was accompanying me to watch the big game.
We boarded a kombi at the corner of Samora Machel Avenue and Chinhoyi Street to the stadium and it looked like every kombi in Harare that day was heading to the National Sports Stadium.
Music was belting out in every vehicle driving Samora Machel Avenue West and a traffic logjam soon formed just after the Showgrounds.
When the kombi my friend and I were in got to the Belvedere shops, traffic was no longer moving due to the high volumes and we decided to disembark and complete the journey on foot.
We joined others that had either decided to walk from town or parked their vehicles in Belvedere.
We got to the stadium and went to the VIP entrance and were let in without hassles.
However, things were a little different on that particular day because we were not allowed into the VIP enclosure, but ushered into the next bay east of the VIP.
A number of government ministers, most of whom we had never seen at football matches, had decided to attend and ate up all space in the VIP enclosure.
My friend and I took our seats right next to the fence dividing the VIP enclosure and the bay we had been ushered into.
I was pleasantly surprised to see my older sister and her husband in the same bay. Surprised because my sister is not a football fan and had no business being in the stadium. But she trudged along because of the hype that had been attached to the game.
The stadium was already filling up at around lunch time and it was obvious thousands others still making their way and some outside would be turned away.
As we awaited the two teams to emerge for the warm-up and ultimately the kick-off, little did my friend and I know that we had just walked into the valley of the shadow of death.
The game eventually started before a capacity crowd and the Warriors were under pressure from the onset despite a few sporadic counter raids of their own which yielded nothing.
Bafana Bafana took the lead through Delron Buckley much to the disappointment of the home fans, but they still had hope of a comeback.
But the balance of forces didn’t shift in the second half and when Buckley got his brace in the 82nd minute, the hope some fans had retained turned into anger.
Their anger boiled over when Buckley pulled his middle finger at the fans while celebrating his goal.
Initially one plastic bottle of water was thrown at Buckley from the stands and suddenly missiles rained from the stands.
The National Sports Stadium stands are so far from the pitch that a plastic bottle can’t go beyond the athletics track. And again, those throwing the missiles could have easily been identified and apprehended, but one trigger happy cop fired a volley of teargas into the crowd from where the plastic bottle missiles were coming.
Mayhem broke out as people fled to avoid the tear smoke. More and more teargas was fired into the crowd and fans made a rush for the exists in the packed 60 000-capacity stadium to flee the choking tear smoke.
Unfortunately when those at the top of the stands discovered that the exits were all locked, they tried to run down the stands, but those below them came up in full force and they surged against the metal gates.
Most of the dead were either crushed or suffocated during the stampede.
My friend and I were almost caught up in the stampede, but he quickly discovered an escape route by scaling the fence into the VIP enclosure.
He waved and shouted at me to jump the fence into the VIP, as I had been caught up in the chaos and had joined the rest of the crowd in running up and down the bay steps.
I joined him in the VIP enclosure, which had been deserted, and we watched the rest of the stampede.
What surprised us was that police continued to fire teargas creating a whirlpool sucking people into a crush of bodies with no way out.
From our vantage point, we could see piles of shoes and some handbags strewn all over the stands and people on the stands.
I thought they had only been injured and had no idea that some were already dead.
We left the stadium when it was getting dark after ambulances had ferried a number of people to hospital.
It was only when I got to the newsroom at Herald House that I was informed there had been fatalities in the stampede.
I immediately went to the Parirenyatwa Hospital mortuary where I found bodies from the stadium stampede awaiting identification.
Some people were already weeping after identifying their relatives and I suddenly thought of my sister, whose phone had been unreachable when I tried contacting her after hearing about the fatalities.
I went through the bodies that had still not been identified with my heart pounding, as I feared the next body I opened could be my sister.
I was a little relieved when she wasn’t among the dead and even more relieved when I called my brother-in-law, who informed me they were safe, although my sister was traumatised.
I uttered a silent prayer and left the morgue in a state of confusion as more relatives identified bodies of their loved ones after news of the deadly stampede had spread.
To this day I still can’t understand what prompted the police to fire teargas into the stands of a packed stadium when the players’ lives weren’t at any risk.
Missiles were being thrown from one section of one stand and the police could have easily quelled the disturbance without the recklessness that needlessly cost 13 lives and lost football a number of fans.
Whilst I have continued to watch local matches, I have never been to the National Sports Stadium since July 9, 2000. The Chronicle