Healing Ourselves... a journey of recovery.
In Zimbabwe this year the rains are good and the earth squelches underfoot. As the sun emerges from days of cloud it lights up 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 sit around a low table in the living room enjoying cups of tea and tomato and cheese sandwiches as they catch 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 to begin 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 to talk and she looks away from me as she recalls a day seven years ago.
I don’t want to remember - 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 robbers. It was a meeting of the NCA – the National Constitutional Assembly – an organisation formed 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 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 doesn’t want me to use her real name. Her story is not unique.
“Violence against women in the context of ‘political conflict, repression and resistance’ in Zimbabwe is a feature that has been seen in every election since 2000, and it is a frequent experience for women whether they are politically active or not.” states a report produced at the end of last year by IDASA, (Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa) in conjunction with the ICTJ( International Centre for Transitional Justice) and RAU( Research and Advocacy Unit).
Debra first experienced assault and terror in 2002 when her office and her home were petrol bombed. At the time she was ‘three in one’, the NCA chairperson in her area, the vice chair of the Zimbabwe congress of Trade Unions and a secretary for the opposition MDC. She lost almost all her possessions and was lucky to escape with her life.
“I thought it was my right to participate,” she says “ I didn’t know I was putting myself into danger.”
In the last decade, 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, 2008) They provide the illusion of democracy while being used as an opportunity to intimidate and terrorize voters.
2008 saw Zimbabwe endure two elections within a period of three months. In March a ‘harmonised’ election was held –presidential, parliamentary and 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 signaled terrible violence and over the next few weeks there was a reign of terror. People were violated, tortured and displaced and repeatedly saw their 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.
State agents like the black boots form only one layer of threat. 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’ with a goal to cleanse the party of disobedient people. Bases, called training camps by the authorities, were set up in villages and townships, often in the local primary school, the heart of the community. These were places of terror, visible yet unacknowledged. Passers-by were chilled by cries and screams. The militia dragged people out of their homes into these camps where they were kept, often for days. Women were gang raped, victims were tortured and 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.
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, told, “you’re used to doing this 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 they said, “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 constant fear of their attackers who still roam the streets freely and they are unable to seek redress or protection from the law. In addition rape victims are often stigmatized by society and sometimes not only the political party in whose name they have been raped and beaten but often also by their own husbands.
For a long time after her attack Debra was scared to walk in her own neighbourhood where if she saw policemen or Zanu PF her heart would skip a beat. “The police behave as if they don’t have women at home.”
2008 shocked the nation to the core. Zimbabwe was like a country in the aftermath of war. Violence and torture rips apart communities and leaves individuals confused, disconnected and in disarray. Communities and individuals are desperate to find ways to recover and to avoid the repetition of that terror. People don’t want to descend again into the darkness of that year.
One way for victims to begin to feel human again is to tell their story, to be witnessed. The Tree of Life helps people to do just that – to come together in a safe place to tell their stories. This marks 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 - 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, their fruits and how those branches reach out in the breeze to touch other trees. So the forest grows.
The people of Zimbabwe have a history of resilience, of coming through war and torture and loss. People still smile, still welcome visitors, still hope for a better life for themselves and their children - a piece of land to grow vegetables, a home to raise a family, a place to be in community.
After that workshop Debra felt like a human being again. She could pass through roads that she had avoided before. A facilitator now for six years, listening to other stories and helping others on that path to healing and wholeness, she sees herself and her team as peace builders.
The IDASA paper recommends that, ‘There is an imperative need to end political violence generally in Zimbabwe, and the risks to women (and the families that they care for) require urgent attention by the government and the political parties, not least for the purpose of promoting non-violent elections.”
This hasn’t happened yet. After two years of an uneasy coalition government another election is scheduled this year. There is a real fear that the horror of 2008 could be repeated as people see the youth militia being mobilised again. Finance Minister Tendai Biti of the MDC recently warned of the danger of a bloodbath if an election is held in current conditions. “Violence is rising now, hate speech is increasing…….….. all the signs are reflective of a reproduction of June 2008.”
Debra and people like her – ordinary people in villages and communities – want to make this stop. She feels that the Tree of Life contributes to ending this cycle of violence. Tossing her earrings she walks into 2011 with hope and determination -for herself and her homeland.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 31 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard from corners of the world.