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EDINBURGH — The Mike Campbell Foundation is a human rights charity focused on rebuilding the foundations of justice in Zimbabwe. Its executive director Ben Freeth has shared a glimpse of what life is like in a country that is in the grip of a government internet and social media blackout and where citizens have been urged to stay off the streets as violence escalates. Before communications were switched off, residents saw images of plain-clothed gunmen wielding AK47 automatic rifles in suburbs, saw warnings spread through WhatsApp of impending martial law and heard of protestors being killed. Now living in an information vacuum, most Zimbabweans have no idea whether violence has escalated or what is happening in their cities and towns, but gunfire has been heard. These are frightening times for Zimbabweans living under President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was linked to genocide in the 1980s. Freeth explains in a chilling letter he somehow managed to email out of the country what life is like as the Zimbabwe crisis deepens. – Jackie Cameron
By Ben Freeth*
We are now in our third day of complete shutdown throughout the whole of Zimbabwe. Banks are closed, schools are closed, roads are closed in and out of the main towns and transport systems have shut down.
There are no newspapers to be bought, the Internet has been shut down by the government and everything is at a complete standstill.
People are too afraid to move around as a result of the burning of vehicles by vigilante groups and the complete dearth of any updated information or warnings due to the total social media blackout. This means that no WhatsApp messages or photos can be sent, no one can access Facebook or Messenger, and the situation is very tense.
In some centres it almost feels apocalyptic. We have heard gunfire, and before the Internet was closed down, saw pictures of dead and wounded people. It is unclear how many people have died but before the media blackout, it was reported that there had been five deaths and more than 200 people had been arbitrarily arrested.
Elements of the police and military are also involved in ensuring that there is a complete shutdown. People in civilian dress armed with AK-47 rifles have been seen in some areas. It is clear that these are military personnel.
Amnesty International has condemned the military crackdown and has called on the Zimbabwean authorities to ensure restraint by security forces and respect the public’s right to protest.
Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights reported prior to the blackout that they had received reports of soldiers and police breaking into homes in townships overnight and assaulting suspected demonstrators.
Contacts in the diplomatic corps and the political opposition are also completely in the dark, along with the rest of us.
This morning I spoke to Nelson Chamisa, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance, and it is clear that no one knows what is going on because the entire country has been effectively silenced.
I have also spoken to lawyers regarding the arrest once again of Pastor Evan Mawarire who inadvertently triggered the highly successful #ThisFlag social media protest action in April 2016 because he could no longer afford to pay school fees. This led to his arrest on trumped up charges and his high profile court case. Since then, his activities have been under constant surveillance.
— CNN International (@cnni) January 16, 2019
Police officers arrive at his flat this morning in central Harare and took him to the Law and Order section, charging him under a false charge of incitement to commit public violence.
The crisis was precipitated on Sunday (January 13) by President Emmerson Mnangagwa when he announced a shock increase of 200% in the fuel price – this in a country with more than 90 percent unemployment and where the struggle to survive escalates daily. Mr Mnangagwa promptly left the country for Russia and has not returned. Reports say that he has gone there to “discuss Russian assistance to modernise the military”.
Right now the situation remains eerie and uncertain. If this goes on for much longer, the humanitarian crisis will escalate. We cannot buy food because the shops are all closed and transport systems have closed down. Most of the hospitals are without essential medicines and also staff because doctors and nurses can’t even get to work.
This is an unprecedented situation in Zimbabwe and internationally. Even in wartime Europe, the people could get newspapers, transport systems operated, retail outlets were still open and people could communicate.
I cannot send you an e-mail or a photograph – it is a very weird situation.
The only thing we can do at this point is to ask for your prayers as we face this time of escalating fear and uncertainty.
- Ben Freeth, Executive Director, Mike Campbell Foundation.