In Zimbabwe this year the rains are good and the ground is sodden. As the sun comes out lighting clearings in the old suburban garden overgrown with flowering and fruiting trees and creepers, ferns and orchids, aloes and agave, the foliage is alive with birds and birdsong. In this season and in this year, the people of Zimbabwe dare to hope again.
Inside the house a meeting has just finished and a small group of facilitators and friends are sitting around a low table in the living room enjoying cups of tea and tomato and cheese sandwiches – catching up with each other in the first week of the New Year.
This is the home of the Tree of Life, a small group of committed people dedicated to the healing and empowerment of survivors of organized violence and torture. One of them is Debra. She has arrived for the beginning of work in the New Year with a shaved head and wearing dramatic hoop earrings. ‘It’s a sign of liberation’ she says – ‘I’m shedding another layer of burden.’ We settle down in what used to be the dining room of the house and she looks away from me as she recalls a day seven years ago.
“I don’t want to remember” she says “but I can’t forget those events. After the meeting we were sitting around in the offices peacefully drinking tea – just like we are now – when those special police wearing black boots swarmed over the durawall, forced the guard at gunpoint to open the gate, broke down all the doors and windows and started beating everyone .”
This wasn’t a drug bust, nor a raid on a group of armed gangsters. It was a meeting of the NCA – the National Constitutional Assembly – an organisation put together by concerned citizens to draft a fair and democratic consititution for Zimbabwe.
‘They made us all lie down on our stomachs and we were beaten with baton sticks. We were beaten and beaten. When they got tired of beating us with their sticks they trampled on us with their black boots. My legs and buttocks were so swollen I couldn’t fit in my pants. One old woman was crying ‘Oh my children. Don’t do this.’
‘Stupid woman!’ They swore at her. ‘Bitch!’
I heard later she died from that beating.”
“They rounded up all the men and took them to Harare Central. The guard told us women to get out quickly before they came back for us. I was confused and bleeding. I couldn’t find the bus stop. Somebody helped me and somehow I got home. My mother was very upset and scared, ‘Look now – you are dying’ she said. She didn’t want me to carry on being an activist.”
Debra’s story is not unique. Many women suffer violence because of their own political affiliation or that of their male family members and state agents like the police and the army often target women activists. Since February 2000 women across Zimbabwe have experienced politically motivated violence including assault, sexual abuse, damage to property and torture – particularly during elections. And Zimbabwe has had many elections. (2000, 2002, 2005 and 2008) Regular elections provide the illusion of democracy while being used as an opportunity for intimidating and terrorizing voters.
In 2008 Zimbabwe endured two elections within a period of three months. In March what was called a ‘harmonised’ election was held – where people voted for the president, for parliamentary representatives and for local government. The opposition MDC secured a victory in parliament. But the results of the Presidential Election were not announced until early May. A second ‘run off’ election was scheduled for June between incumbent Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai who according to a much doubted ‘result’ won by not enough of a margin to assume office - thus necessitating a second round. This was a signal for terrible violence and over the next few weeks there was a reign of terror. People were violated and displaced and repeatedly had homes and livelihoods destroyed. Shocked and horrified by the scale of the trauma Morgan Tsvangirai pulled out of the electoral race, leaving Mugabe to clean up with a landslide vote .
It is not only state agents like the black boots that people have to contend with. Over the last decade a vicious youth militia devoid of societal restraints has been deliberately cultivated by the ruling party Zanu PF and regularly released on the civilian population to instill fear and terror and to 'encourage' people to vote for the ruling party. They call themselves ‘The Taliban’ claiming to be ‘ cleansing’ the party of disobedient people. ‘Bases’ were set up in villages and townships, often in the local primary school. These were places of terror – visible yet unacknowledged. Called ‘training camps’ by the authorities, in reality these were places of torture and rape, and where victims were often forced to hurt neighbours and friends.
Young men raped women old enough to be their mothers and grandmothers, thus committing a real aberration in a society which respects and honours elders. Witnesses and victims report elderly women being made to lie down and put their legs up in their air. Then the youth militia would throw soil on their private parts. Some younger women had hot coals thrown on them.
Zimbabwe Rape Surviviors Association estimates that state sanctioned groups raped over 2000 women and girls between May and July 2008 when the violence reached its height.
Women report continual insults during the rape and assault – they are called prostitutes, ‘you’re used to doing this’ – taunt their attackers ‘ so we want to have sex with you where Tsvangirai had sex with you.’ One rape survivor recounts her gang rape by ten men – soldiers. She was blindfolded – and when they finished heard them saying “We want to put chillies where Tsvangirai had sex with you.”
Another woman tried to protect her young sister who had just given birth from being beaten. The attackers turned on her and beat her continually until she fainted. She was revived with water and beaten again – beaten until she stopped crying. Then her assaulters produced a knife and slashed a cross on her back saying ‘you have already voted. This is your vote.’ The injuries on her buttocks from the prolonged beating were so severe she had to have skin grafts.
Victims live in double fear – fear of their attackers who still roam the streets freely and unable to seek redress or protection from the law. In addition rape victims are often stigmatized by society and not only the political party in whose name they have been raped and beaten but often also by their husbands. ‘People assume that because you were raped you like men and sex and even your own husband doesn’t see you as a respectable woman any more.’ says one survivor.
For a long time after her attack Debra was scared to walk in her own neighbourhood. “If I saw policemen or Zanu PF my heart would skip a beat. I was still afraid. The police behave as if they don’t have women at home.”
The beating was not Debra’s first experience of assault and terror. In 2002 first her office and then her home was petrol bombed. She lost nearly everything and was lucky to escape with her life “I was 3 in one, NCA chairperson in my area, vice chair of the ZCTU, (Zimbabwe congress of Trade Unions) and a secretary for the MDC. I thought it was my right to participate. I didn’t know I was putting myself into danger”.
“After the petrol bombing I stayed at home for a month - Trying to hide myself in a room without curtains.” Her family was also scared and worried about the consequences. “Actually it was only last week that I managed to put up new pelmets,” she adds. “Before that I was just draping cloths randomly to cover my windows.”
2008 was a shocker. Zimbabwe was like a country in the aftermath of war. Violence and torture leaves communities and individuals confused, disconnected and in disarray. People lose their sense of self and their connection with their bodies and the broader body of community. They have no protection. It is really difficult to come out of it, to begin to feel human again, and one of the ways is to tell the story, to be witnessed. It is hard for victims to begin talking, to begin speaking about what has happened, but increasingly women are overcoming the stigma and shame imposed by society.
“I have to talk about it openly, say that this thing happened to me - not be afraid to say we were raped.”
The Tree of Life is a small community based healing programme which encourages people to do just that – to come together in a safe place to tell their stories. This is the first step of healing, a first step in releasing shame, a first step in taking back ownership of bodies and life. The process is facilitated by survivors themselves who know not only that violence devastates and dehumanises, but also that some healing is possible. Debra first told her story in 2004 when she met the Tree of Life.
Some people whom she trusted called her to one of the first workshops – held on the shores of a lake, surrounded by nature. The Tree of Life holds workshops over a period of three days in a beautiful natural setting. The tranquillity and beauty of nature is an essential part of the healing process and often completely the reverse of the darkness and fear of the torture camp.
‘An important aspect of the healing is our relationship with nature. We all have an instinctive response to the healing powers of rivers, mountains and trees. This simple understanding has been held by traditional cultures all over the world and way back into our history.’ (extract from Tree of Life Manual)
Over the three days the group lives in community - and are guided through a series of conversational circles using a tree as the analogy. They explore and reconnect with their roots – where they have come from and draw strength from those who have gone before. They look at their trunks at what has shaped them, what has grown, what has been cut off. Most time is given to the trauma circle, where the participants talk (often for the first time) about the violations they suffered and the consequent hardships and traumas they experience.
Debra remembers the first time she told her story. “It was a long trauma circle – it was really hard for me.
Later I felt like an empty bin – the rubbish was out
The workshop finishes with a celebration, with a power circle where survivors acknowledge their strength, their gifts – where they see their branches as it were, and the fruits on those branches, and how those branches touch other trees and move in the breeze.
After that first workshop Debra had confidence that she was a human being again, she felt able to pass through roads that she had avoided before. She has been a facilitator now for 5 years, listening to other stories, helping others on that path to healing and wholeness.
“I wanted to help others – I realised that telling your story out helps you to heal. I wanted to help women and youths. Women are like nurses – they look after others and forget to look after themselves.
The people of Zimbabwe have a history of resilience, of coming through war and torture and loss. From colonial and pre-colonial times through the liberation war and to the present, people still smile, still welcome visitors, still hope for a better life for themselves and their children. A small piece of land to grow vegetables, a home to raise a family. A place to be in community.
“When we work in a community – we can not fight against each other – we can work for development and peace. That means in another way we are peace builders.” Says Debra. “We want to see a healed nation – working for development and peace.”
Debra tosses her earrings. ‘I’m now a free woman ,” she smiles “I was in a shell. My mother said a holy sprit can be around this head without hair.” She walks into 2011 tall and with hope… for herself and her homeland.