About Sophie Roberts
Sophie Roberts is a doctoral candidate in the department of war studies at KingâÛªs College London. Her research focuses on the phenomenon of enforced disappearance
Articles by Sophie Roberts
In recent days Zimbabwe's extended political and humanitarian agony has taken a sinister turn with the "disappearance" of a number of prominent figures within the Zimbabwean opposition and civil society. This phenomenon adds a new twist of fear to an already perilous situation in which the core elements of the Robert Mugabe regime seem both resistant to political compromise and indifferent even to a collapse in the health and livelihoods of Zimbabwe's people.Sophie Roberts is a doctoral candidate in the department of war studies at King's College London. Her research focuses on the phenomenon of enforced disappearance
It is estimated that around twenty opponents of the Zanu-PF regime have been made to disappear by (it is presumed) clandestine organs within the Zimbabwean state. They include the director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, Jestina Mukoko, followed by two of her colleagues. Gandhi Mudzingwa, an official of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), is among the opposition figures who have also reportedly been abducted by unidentified agents (see Oskar Wermter, "Zimbabwe's disappeared", Eureka Street, 17 December 2008).
But the tactic of disappearance also belongs to a larger canvas: in that it has parallels with countries in other parts of the world (not least Latin America) where it has been used under authoritarian regimes to intimidate and quell political opposition, and with earlier periods in Zimbabwe's own history. In particular, there are strong resonances with the period of the Gukurahundi campaigns in Zimbabwe's Matabeleland region in the early 1980s, when ruthless violence - which included widespread abuse of human rights - was deployed by the state to suppress dissent.
This, Zimbabwe's first "dirty war" in the
years following the country's liberation and independence in 1980, suggests an
important lesson for what appears to be the signals of a second: that
disappearance can acts as a "gateway abuse" from which other human-rights violations can all too easily flow.Among openDemocracy's
many articles on Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe:
Bev Clark, "Mass evictions in Zimbabwe" (13 June 2005)
Netsai Mushonga, " Two nights in Harare's police cells" (5 December 2005)
Andrew Meldrum, " Zimbabwe between past and future" (23 June 2006)
Conor O'Loughlin, " Zimbabwean travails" (13 September 2006)
Wilf Mbanga, " Happy birthday, Robert Mugabe" (21 February 2007)Stephen Chan, "Farewell, Robert Mugabe" (20 March 2007)
Michael Holman, " Dizzy worms in Zimbabwe" (13 September 2007)
The Zimbabwean, " Zimbabwe votes - and waits" (31 March 2008)
Wilf Mbanga, " Zimbabwe's unfolding drama" (7 April 2008)
openDemocracy, "" Zimbabwe's elections: an African appeal" (20 June 2008)
Jabu Shoko, " Zimbabwe: a tale of two leaders" (24 June 2008)
Ashraf Ghani & Clare Lockhart, " The right and wrong fix: Afghan lessons for Zimbabwe" (27 June 2008)
Roger Southall, " Zimbabwe: the death of ‘quiet diplomacy'" (20 October 2008)
The Gukurahundi operations of the early 1980s were targeted against the Matabele people on account of their extensive support for the main opposition party Zapu (led by Mugabe's rival as chief liberation figurehead, Joshua Nkomo). The regional concentration of political loyalties meant that the "dissidents" were located mostly in the city of Bulawayo and the Midlands region. The Gukurahundi campaigns were conducted outside of the main command structure of the Zimbabwean military, and involved special training by North Korea of the army's fifth brigade to a pitch of ruthlessness; the results involved systematic targeting of civilians with degrading strategies such as sexual and electrical torture, the "submarine" (now known as waterboarding), and other forms of violence - as well as disappearance.
The current deployment of military and state-security forces against Zimbabwean civilians is far less extensive and "territorial", reflecting the different nature of the challenge as perceived by the regime; but it is nonetheless highly strategic and represents a similar degree of astute and pitiless political calculation by those in control of Zimbabwe.
The sinister vanishing of well-known critics of the Robert Mugabe regime appears to show that towards the end of his third decade in power, Zimbabwe's leader is again engaging in second dirty war. Some analysts argue that this may be a sign of his desperation; but it could equally be argued that deliberately to place people beyond the protection of the law in this manner - consigning them to utter invisibility even amid a wave of international media attention - makes political and military sense in regime terms.
There is an even more intimate logic at work in that the effects of hunger and disease on Zimbabwean civilians have already allowed this government to entrench its power. As people's bodies themselves become beaten down as a result of inequitable power-relations, the turn to enforced disappearance is a further stage of bodily violation.
The current difficult circumstances of Zimbabwe's people require constant attention and pressure from media and civil society outside the country, so that the latest dirty war is exposed to the light. Zimbabwe's own civil society requires more support to ensure its message is heard within the appropriate international forums, and to persuade the Zanu-PF regime to allow human-rights bodies to visit and assess conditions in the country. The African Union and Zimbabwe's immediate neighbours also have a particular responsibility to act to help resolve Zimbabwe's political and humanitarian crisis - and in order to prevent the "gateway abuse" of disappearance from escalating into war and even genocide.
For in such circumstances - in Zimbabwe as elsewhere - it is not just individuals but accountability itself that is made to disappear. The impunity already exercised in public life can be extended to places where the world's media can no longer reach. It is significant in this respect that this most egregious of crimes - most commonly associated with the Latin American juntas of the 1970s and early 1980s, though even more widely practiced - is now the subject of a wide-ranging convention at the United Nations, which opened for signature in February 2007.
Even among the panoply of human-rights abuses, enforced disappearance so often opens the way to escalating violations: torture, rape and ultimately extra-judicial killing. In this sense, what is happening in Zimbabwe is part of both the country's own recent history and that of the modern world as a whole.