By Luke Tamborinyoka
Memory is a site of the struggle. Today, 28 March 2021, marks exactly 14 years after the first of my two stints in the D-class section of one of Zimbabwe’s notorious prisons. For me, it has been a tenuous two decades of Luke-ing the Beast in the eye since my grounding as a founding journalist at one of the country’s independent dailies.
The charge at my maiden arrest on Friday, 27 January 2001 was that I had criminally defamed the then President Mr Robert Mugabe. But today marks the 14th anniversary of my arrest, brutal assault and torture by the Zanu PF regime on trumped-up charges of banditry and terrorism for which I spent almost three months in prison. I was to spend yet another month in D-class in April 2008 on
another trumped-up charge of public violence which yet again collapsed spectacularly.
Today, I republish this piece about my ordeal 14 years ago, which piece was first published in August 2007. And true to my prediction in the last paragraph of this piece, Morgan Tsvangirai was to become the second Prime Minister of independent Zimbabwe in the election held a few months after my arrest, torture and detention in 2007.
My three months in the belly of the Beast
By Luke Batsirai Tamborinyoka
Inscribed on the door of cell C6 at Harare Remand Prison is a simple message in the local vernacular Shona language: “Zvichapera boyz dzangu”, a telling reminder that this suffering will eventually come to an end.
I walked out of the prison gates at exactly 1933hrs on Thursday, 7 June 2007, after a three month-stint as a guest of the State. But even the euphoria for new-found freedom did not erase my memory of the simple inscription obviously scribbled by an optimistic home-sick inmate.
After what I had gone through, it remained a pleasant surprise that I was finally out of the belly of the beast. The ordeal had indeed come to an end. In the glaring moonlight, I turned my back to the dilapidated two-storey building that constitutes the D-class section of this cursed and unimaginative piece of architecture. I painstakingly walked the final 10 metres to the prison fence and immediately jumped into the crushing embrace of my loving wife, Susan.
I ordered that we quickly drive away, never again to look back to the dingy prison buildings where I had seen over 10 people succumb to various diseases related to malnutrition, mediaeval diseases such as pellagra. (I presumed then that this was the final farewell to this dingy prison but I was to return to the same D-class “residential area” the following year on the 15th of April 2008).
The D-class section, reserved for “dangerous” suspects, was my home for 71 dark days way back in 2007.
It was a place where one had to adjust to tough conditions such as leg irons, dirty khakhi shirts and shorts, sub-standard food, tight security, the company of hardened criminals and scowling prison officers.
For me, Harare Remand prison represented the dark rictus of death. It was an odd place for hardened criminals and innocent prisoners like me whose persecution arose simply because of our relationship with Zimbabwe’s main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party.
Harare Remand Prison was a potpourri of the genuinely guilty and those whom the tyrannical regime simply wanted to torment and intimidate. The D-class section of Harare Remand will forever remain etched in my mind as one of tyranny’s prized institutions plucked straight from the heart of Hades.
It was a waiting room of extreme fortunes where two cellmates could part to go to contrasting destinations: one for home and the other for the guillotine.
My ordeal started on a sunny Wednesday afternoon on 28 March, 2007. On that day, over 500 armed policemen descended on Harvest House, the national headquarters of the MDC. From about 1215hrs to 1530hrs, an assortment of visibly drunk policemen wrenched open doors and seized party equipment, from documents to computers and laptops. They stole people’s mobile phones, prised open cabinet drawers and stuffed money, passports and other valuables into their pockets. Everyone was ordered to lie down while the sadists among them indiscriminately battered our backs with batons.
My friend, Kudakwashe Matibiri and I were forced to lie down for close to three hours while adventure-seeking young policemen hit us with booted feet and gun-butts.
The sorry sight resembled a scary scene from an Alfred Hitchcock whodunit.
Mugabe’s merchants of death had come to Harvest House ostensibly to recover “weapons of war” which they said were hidden at the MDC headquarters.They combed cabinet drawers, ceilings and any other crevices within reach. They poked every nook and cranny. Like determined bloodhounds, they sniffed all sorts of odd places such as toilet cisterns and air vents in search of the elusive MDC “weapons”.
Their desperation was understandable in the circumstances. The following day on Thursday, 29 June 2007, Mugabe was due to leave for Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to explain the crackdown on the opposition: his police officers had shot dead an MDC activist, Gift Tandare. May his soul rest in peace.
Earlier that month on 11 March 2007, Mugabe’s clearly partisan police force had beaten to pulp and savagely attacked MDC president Morgan Tsvangirai and other senior opposition party and civic officials right inside Machipisa police station in Highfield, Harare.
In the succeeding weeks, MDC executives and party members had been abducted, severely beaten up and dumped in far-away places. Mugabe had to have a plausible explanation for the SADC leaders in Dar es Salaam and the prospect of an arms cache at Harvest House would give him a credible story to justify the violent crackdown on a legitimate opposition.
They were obviously disappointed when they failed to find even a box of matches at Harvest House. The regime’s grand plot had fallen apart at the seams.
Harvest House then was a six-storey building in which the MDC occupied the two upper floors with the rest occupied by an assortment of tenants.The police ordered everyone in the building, including tenants and their clients, to get into the police vehicles.
About 100 people were taken to the infamous Room 93 of the Law and Order section at Harare Central police station where the series of the nights of terror and torture immediately commenced.
That night, we were severely assaulted. One by one we were called into another office where all sorts of wild allegations were made against us. We were part of the MDC thugs that had “petrol-bombed” police stations, the police alleged.We worked for a puppet opposition party. We wanted to hand the country back to the white colonialists and any such drivel associated with a regime fast accelerating a nation towards an inevitable implosion.
The following day, the number of suspects was trimmed down to 23 and eventually to seven. No charge had yet been preferred against us.
For three nights, we were tortured and brutally assaulted with a baseball bat, clenched fists and batons. Ian Makone and Paul Madzore came out the worse for wear in the sordid ordeal.
For three days, the beatings and assaults continued.
For three days, we were denied access to food, legal and medical assistance.
For three days, the sadists continued to call us one by one, asking all sorts of questions.
For three days, our condition deteriorated due to the incessant torture.
They wanted to know more about the MDC’s ‘democratic resistance campaign’. They alleged that the MDC was beating up the police.
On Saturday, 31 March 2007, we were finally told that a court order had been obtained that we should go home because the police had detained us for more than 48 hours without preferring any charge against us.It was then that an official whom I suspect to have been a member of the dreaded state security Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) called me to a private room.
He said I worked in the MDC’s information and publicity department and I was responsible for the “Roll of Shame”, a column in a local weekly where the department where I am director named and shamed all government and Zanu PF personalities who were committing human rights abuses. He referred to what he called “anti-government speeches” that I made five years ago when I was secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists. He accused me of writing for “anti-government” on-line publications.
He claimed I had retained my news editor’s position at the banned Daily News and I was responsible for co-ordinating the pool of former Daily News reporters to write for anti-government on-line publications.
For my alleged “crimes”, the officer said I was going to be imprisoned.
Faced with the prospect of releasing us on the basis of the court order that had just been granted in our favour, a grim-faced officer called the seven of us into a room and read the charges against us.
We were being charged with carrying out a spate of petrol-bombings in Harare and other cities. We were charged under section 24 of the Criminal Law (Reform) Codification Act and were specifically being accused of “ resisting the government and seeking to remove the government through acts of sabotage , banditry and terrorism .”
I was shocked. Me, a terrorist bomber?
After all, the real terrorists I knew were the State security agents who had pumped six bullets into the groin of opposition activist Patrick Kombayi way back in 1990. Even though the culprits, Kizito Chivamba and Elias Kanengoni, were convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison, Mugabe had pardoned them.
The real terror bombers I knew were those who had blown The Daily News’ printing press to smithereens in the early hours of 27 January 2001. They have never been arrested. The terror bombers I knew were those who had petrol-bombed The Daily News’ offices in Harare and Bulawayo in 2001.
The real terrorists were those who in the 1980s directed and carried out the killing of some 20 000 innocent civilians in the Midlands and Matabeleland provinces, all in the name of quelling an armed insurrection in the two provinces against the government.
The real terrorists were those who had just murdered an MDC activist, Gift Tandare, in cold blood in Harare’s Highfield suburb on 11 March 2007.
The real terrorists were ruling Zanu PF party activist Tom Kainos Kitsiyatota Zimunya and state agent Joseph Mwale, who petrol-bombed and killed MDC activists Talent Mabika and Tichaona Chiminya in broad daylight on April 26, 2000 at Murambinda service centre in rural Buhera district.
Some of these real terrorists have never been arrested while in the case of Mwale, he remains an employee of the state despite a High Court order that he be apprehended and prosecuted for the murder of Mabika and Chiminya.
In any case, the real terrorism was the one that had just been meted out on us at the Law and Order section offices where these strange charges had been concocted and were now being read out to us!
The law and order unit is one of the most misnamed offices in the country; a place where neither law nor order prevails.
We were then taken to court under heavy security. This drama, of course, was meant for the state media.The state-controlled Herald newspaper went on to gleefully report the arrest of the MDC terror-bombers, including the “journalist-cum-activist” Luke Tamborinyoka.
(It is telling that when the State case eventually collapsed like a deck of cards three months later, the same State media thought it was not a story worth reporting – so much for professional journalism).
There was no magistrate when we arrived. We were almost collapsing due to hunger and the injuries sustained after three days of brutal assault and torture.Someone must have summoned ambulances to the Magistrates Court but the police ordered that we not be allowed access to medical attention.
One of my colleagues, Shame Wakatama, collapsed and we all thought he had died. It was then that the police panicked and allowed the ambulance crew to drive us to Harare’s Avenues clinic. The court later convened at the clinic and magistrate Gloria Takundwa remanded us in hospital under prison guard until the following Monday. We were put on intravenous tubes by hospital staff eager to nourish and boost our wasted bodies.
But the worst was yet to come!
I am not ordinarily given to fear. But when about 10 gun-totting agents of the states dreaded spy Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) backed by prison officers burst into the clinic at around midnight and demanded to take “our people”, I became jelly-kneed.
They scared the hell out of an adamant sister-in-charge, violently plucked out our intravenous tubes and frog-marched us via the emergency exit to a nearby van. The sight of AK rifles in the van was frightening but the thought of driving in the deathly quiet early morning hours with armed CIO agents to an unknown destination was enough to almost paraylse one with fear.
The seven of us were later dumped at Harare Remand prison at around 01:30 hrs, in the process breaking the prison’s own record of “check-in” time. One is supposed to go to prison by dint of a verdict of the court but we were simply smuggled into gaol by the State’s dreaded soy agency, in brazen violation of the law.
But then this is Zimbabwe.
My colleagues, Zebediah Juaba and Brighton Matimba who had received serious injuries during the torture sessions were immediately taken to the ill-equipped prison hospital to await the attention of a government doctor.
The “doctor” was to pitch up at the prison complex after two months and orally interviewed 30 of us in less than 20 minutes!
The oral interview took place long after my two colleagues had been discharged from hospital to the cells, even though they were still in critical condition.
Matibiri and I were allocated cell C6, where I carved out a place for myself near the corner.That corner was later to be referred to as the “MDC’s Information Corner” after it emerged it was in the same corner where the late party spokesperson Learnmore Judah Jongwe met his mysterious death in 2002.
Later, more MDC activists were to join the seven of us in Remand Prison and more were to be detained at the prison hospital where they were never examined by a doctor.
Among this lot were Morgan Komichi, Phillip Katsande and Dennis Murira.
Life in prison was an ordeal on its own. Remand prison is supposed to be temporary accommodation but some inmates had stayed at the prison for years, seemingly abandoned by the State which brought them to the jailhouse and by relatives who no longer come to visit either because they had long died of HIV/AIDS or they had simply grown tired of the routine trips to the prison.
More than 95 percent of the inmates have no relatives who bring them food and they depend on the prison meal of a morsel of sadza (thick porridge made from maize meal) and cabbage leaves boiled in salted water.
Rations of soap and toilet paper were last seen in the 1980s, we were told and a colleague, Arthur Mhizha, learnt the hard lesson that in a Zimbabwean prison, you bathe with one hand while with the other, you hang on to your prized piece of soap!
The ‘MDC team’, as we were known, became famous for donating some of its food to other inmates, including Fungai Murisa, one of the ZANU PF activists who is facing a murder charge after he and others allegedly murdered an MDC activist in Makoni East in Manicaland province.
Food is acquired at a premium in prison. It is a one-meal per day affair served from an aluminium bin. Yes! A bin! And it is only acquired after a stampede that would leave rugby players green with envy.
Only adventurous inmates such as Reason, one of the most notorious prisoners in D-class, could afford the rare taste of meat. He was well known for what became known as the “rat barbecue.”
He would “murder” the stray rats that patronized the dirty toilet chamber in cell C6 and roast them on the overhead globe during the night when prison officers are snoring the night away.
For the less adventurous, it was one meal of sadza and cabbage, taken every day at around 2pm before everyone was ordered to retire to bed for the “night” at around 3pm.
The cells are another overcrowded affair, with an average of between 45 and 70 prisoners sharing a single cell and battling the night away in the usual pastime of fighting away the cold and killing lice.
One also learnt to meet with suspects with fascinating and sometimes just unbelievable stories of how they ended up in jail. One such character was one Takawira Mwanza, a former army officer who was arrested and served four years for stealing Mugabe’s prized bull from his Norton farm.
The bull, Karigamombe, which was bought and airlifted from China, turned out to be at Mwanza’s rural home in Sanyati.
Mwanza says that even though he served his sentence for stock theft at Chikurubi Maximum Prison, Mugabe was not happy that he should be left to go home. He says he is currently languishing at Harare Remand prison, waiting for the day when Mugabe wakes up in a good mood and order the prison officers to allow him to go home and meet his family.
In the meantime, he has to contend with his two blankets in his beloved corner in cell C6 at Harare remand prison.
The MDC president, Morgan Tsvangirai, left his own mark at Remand prison. On Monday, 13 May 2007, he came to visit us and when he proceeded to see Morgan Komichi in the prison hospital, there was chaos from other sections when both inmates and prison officers went into a frenzy, shouting “President” as they stampeded to catch a glimpse of the man who has given Robert Mugabe a nightmare.
The officer-in-charge of Harare Remand Prison, known as Musonza, was transferred to Prison Headquarters after the incident.
Tsvangirai was also “banned” from visiting Remand prison lest the officers and the inmates got into another frenzy! The chants of “President” by an excited crowd of prison officers and inmates directed at Tsvangirai in a government complex made a lot of people uncomfortable!
By mid-April, there were 30 MDC activists in prison, some shot and abducted from their homes while others had been snatched from the streets of Harare to face the same charges of terrorism.
What kept us going during those tenuous three months in D-class prison was the inspiring presence of Ian Makone, the simplicity of Zebedia Juaba, the comforting singing from Paul Madzore and Shame Wakatama and the gospel teachings of Kenneth Nhemachena.
In June, the State case began to crumble after it emerged that they had created fictitious witnesses to incriminate us in acts of terrorism. One such fictitious witnesses who turned out to be a creation of the State was one Peter Chindodhana.
It later turned out this Chindodhana did not even exist!
For our charge, the State consented on 7 June 2007 that it had no evidence and we were eventually removed from remand.
But another reality struck as I walked out of the prison complex; that in fact the whole country was just another big prison. Harare Remand was simply a microcosm of what the whole country has become.
There is no food on the shelves; starvation is stalking the nation and people can no longer afford to visit each other because of prohibitive transport costs. Zimbabwe has simply become a big prison with Robert Mugabe as the chief warden.
Our unwarranted arrest showed that the regime has developed sudden bouts of panic. Mugabe has every reason to panic. When he came to power after the crucial election of 1980, he was 56 years old.
Morgan Tsvangirai will be 56 on 10 March next year – a trivial statistical coincidence but maybe one that could still scare an old tyrant in an advanced state of panic.
Luke Tamborinyoka is now the Deputy Secretary for Presidential Affairs in the MDC Alliance led by Advocate Nelson Chamisa. He wrote this piece 14 years ago when he was still the MDC’s director of Information and Publicity.
Tamborinyoka, a former spokesperson to democracy icon Morgan Richard Tsvangirai, is a multiple award winning journalist and a former secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists. Tamborinyoka, a holder of a Master of Science degree in International Relations from the University of Zimbabwe, is an ardent political scientist who won the Book Prize for best student when he graduated with a Bachelor of Science Honours degree in Political Science at the University of Zimbabwe in 2018. You can interact with him on Facebook or on the twitter handle @luke_tambo.