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December 11th 2008 print

John Eppel

Of the Fist

“Let’s go,” growled Comrade Hondo, shouldering his battered AK 47 and smashing his beer bottle against the wall of Mr Mutarara’s store. Hondo was a genuine war veteran, now in his fifties. He was wearing a police uniform and had been given a temporary force number, and a temporary designation: Chief Warden. With him were seven youths designated by Joint Operations Command as militias, and two brutalised farm workers. Their task that night, early morning if the glow on the eastern horizon was anything to go by, was to put into effect Operation Vote Wisely. They were armed with iron bars, the kind used to reinforce concrete. They were drunk.Mr Mutarara’s General Trading Store had been bought by his father in 1953, the year of the Centenary. It still displayed, somewhat anachronistically, faded advertisements for Aspro, Milk of Magnesia, and Rudge Cycles. It was a solidly built structure of brick under corrugated iron and, except for a period during the Liberation Struggle when it had been regularly plundered by both sides in that bloody civil war, it had supplied the surrounding rural community, at a reasonable profit, with everything from mealie meal to wire nails.No longer. When Comrade Hondo and his group petrol-bombed the store (the Mutarara family had already gone into hiding) they found nothing but three plastic coat hangers and two almost full crates of Castle lager. They had also been passing round a powerful distillation called, onomatopoeically, “tot-tot”, accompanied by deep inhalations of the finest Gokwe mbanje, so by the time they left the fire-blackened shop they felt ready for anything.“Anything” materialised into a seventy-year-old MDC activist called Mai Mwatse and her fourteen-year-old grand-daughter, Chido. Their village, what was left of it, was located north of Harare in the Mazoe district, once famous for its oranges, still famous, somehow, for its orange juice. This was to be a mopping-up operation; the real work had been done the night before. It had begun with an address by the MP-elect for this constituency, retired Colonel Moscow Mhondi. In the middle of the night, villagers had been dragged from their huts and forced to assemble in the bush. The MP-elect had harangued them for nearly three hours. The gist of his speech: if the country is given away through the ballot, we will go back to the bush and start another war. Then the villagers were forced to chant ZANU-PF slogans and sing Chimurenga songs. For hours. Then the beatings began. Then the killings. Limbs were broken, and backs (by laying the victims on a log, supine, see-saw style, and jumping on them); finally their heads were crushed. The MP-elect broke many jaws with the butt of his rifle, and he presided over the killings, which were witnessed by the entire village including wives and children of the men who were killed.The militias, also known as green bombers, wore T-shirts, combat jackets and trousers, and black boots. Their T-shirts portrayed the Esteemed Leader flapping his wrist at God, and the slogan: tiri vechibhakera (we are of the fist). The two brutalised farm workers wore rags. They were from retired Colonel Mhondi’s farm. Douglas, the younger of the two, had been born on the farm, at the little clinic, which had been established by the previous owners, the Longbottoms. He had been schooled on the farm, and was in Grade Six when angry war veterans arrived in government vehicles without number plates and drove out the white owners and their labourers. Among those who ended up camping along roadsides, for months to come, were Douglas and his extended family.One of those angry war veterans had been Comrade Hondo. Douglas remembered his demented eyes, red with battle-lust, as he set about killing the Longbottoms’ pets. When the old, spayed Labrador bitch dared to challenge him, he grabbed it by the tail and swung it round several times before smashing its head against a wall of the farm house. The guinea pig and the budgie were easy. Only the cat got away.Some of the children of the evicted labourers were allowed back to the farm where they underwent extensive re-education, which focused on words like “revolution”, “sovereignty”, “colonialism”, “imperialism”, “racism”; and phrases like “puppet sanctions-mongers” and “Blair’s kith and kin”. Douglas had been one of these children, grateful for a daily plate of sadza and relish, which the farm no longer produced but which was freely available from Care International and other well-meaning suckers. When the harmonised elections of March 11, 2008, went the wrong way, all retired Colonel Mhondi’s farm workers (no longer labourers) were mobilised to help punish, with impunity, the misguided villagers throughout the country, but particularly in the previously ZANU-PF strongholds, the three Mashonaland provinces. Mai Mwatse and Chido had missed the previous night’s pungwe because they had been in Harare to help care for the hundreds of displaced villagers who had taken refuge at Harvest House, the opposition headquarters. Mai Mwatse was a polling agent for her constituency and was, consequently, a marked person. When they got home the following day they were devastated to see that every single hut in the village, including their own, had been burned to the ground. The police had been and gone. Their task was to remove the bodies to the nearest mortuary, and those still alive but incapable of moving, to the nearest government hospital or clinic. They had strict instructions from the men at the top, Joint Operations Command: not to interfere with things political.The traumatised community were huddled round an open fire—the nights were becoming chilly—when Comrade Hondo’s party arrived. While his team stood guard on the outskirts of the circle of villagers, the war veteran went up to Mai Mwatse and ordered her to lie face down on the ground. “This is what we do to sell-outs,” he growled, and he began beating her with an iron bar. Her screams excited the militia and one of the farm workers, and they joined in with the beating, all the while chanting: “Zimbabwe will never be a colony again!” Only Douglas, head lowered in shame, remained on the periphery.Chido tried to protect her grandmother by throwing herself over the old woman’s head. With a hobnailed boot Comrade Hondo nudged her onto her back and signalled to his mujibas to take her. The petrified crowd looked on. The farm worker was given the task of holding the girl down, by the shoulders; the dominant youth handed his iron bar to one of his subordinates, unbuckled his belt, and pulled his trousers down. Comrade Hondo wrenched Mai Mwatse’s head in Chido’s direction and forcefully held it there. Chido was sobbing, begging them to leave her alone. Two of the youths ripped off her underpants and pushed her dress above her navel. They forced her legs open and the dominant one went down on her. He humped her for so long that his comrades became impatient, called upon him to “release”, “discharge”, “unload”. Finally the spasm came and he rolled off the whimpering child. The next one went down on her, and the next, and the next … By the time the farm labourer took his turn, Chido was unconscious.“This one is mine!” growled Comrade Hondo. He handed his iron bar to one of the militias, slipped his rifle off his shoulder, and barked an order to turn Mai Mwatse on her back. She was too broken from her beating to resist. “Hold open her legs! Whore of the white man! I am going to fuck your brains out!”She gave a strangled cry as he rammed the barrel of his AK 47 into her vagina. “Do you know why this gun is called 47?” shouted Comrade Hondo. “Because it pumps 47 times before it comes. Count! COUNT!” He screamed at the audience, and they began to count. “Louder!” Forty-seven times he pushed the barrel in and out of the old woman’s bloodied vagina. Then … “Let’s come!” he laughed, and he fired three times into the woman’s body.On their way back to retired Colonel Mhondi’s farm, which was being used as a torture centre, they mocked Douglas for being a coward, mbwende, and for behaving like a woman, chikadzi. Comrade Hondo went further and accused him of being a traitor, threatened to kill him there and then. In a choked voice, Douglas said, “That old woman, she is my grandmother …”“And that girl, that musikana?”“Chido. She is my sister.”