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Two nights in Harare's police cells

About the author
Netsai Mushonga is coordinator of the Women’s Coalition, an umbrella body of women’s rights groups in Zimbabwe.

On Monday 7 November 2005, following a weekend peace and non-violence training workshop hosted by the Women’s Peacemakers’ Program for church leaders from Epworth and other areas of Harare, I received a call from the police asking me to come to the police station. The officer stressed that it was to my advantage to cooperate. I went that afternoon, arriving at 2.30pm.

Surprisingly, the whole section seemed to be waiting for me. “She is here”, one officer shouted when I introduced myself.

I am ushered into a dilapidated office, which looks like a reception room. An old desk has an even older typewriter on top. One of the four officers in the room looks bored and drunk. They ask if I was responsible for organising the workshop, and tell me that the meeting was a political one; we should therefore have informed the police in advance under the Public Order and Security Act (Posa).

I argue that it was a peace and non-violence meeting and explain that the WFP operates with a constitution: all perfectly legal. The officers believe the meeting was political since it discussed the history of Zimbabwe. They seemed worried that we mentioned Gukurahundi (the military operation in Matabeleland where 20,000 civilians were killed in the 1980s).

I maintain my cool. When the other officers discover that I am not going to be a pushover they all but one slowly leave the reception room to find something more exciting to do. For the rest of the afternoon, I discuss the meeting with the officer who had called me. I have lots of work and am anxious to leave, so I tell the officer that I have to pick up my kid from school. But he detains me until 5pm and asks me to return at 8am the next day.

Because I am very sure of my innocence, I do not raise the alarm, try to find a lawyer, or even tell my husband, Albert. On Tuesday 8 November I rush to my office to plan for the day, since I have a meeting to attend in the afternoon; by 8.30 I am at the police station. This time, no one seems interested in me. But after ten minutes’ wait an officer asks me to come with him.

We walk through the corridors and I realise that I am now in the Central Intelligence Office (CIO) division. The offices and their personnel are alike poorly maintained and a pitiful sight; almost all the staff are wearing cheap, worn civilian clothing.

I am taken to the head of the division where a junior officer comes to sit with me. The head himself pops in and out, ostensibly to give orders to juniors though I suspect really to check up on me. I chat with junior officers and ask one of them to phone my husband; he does so gladly. My husband is shocked by the news and wants to find a lawyer fast. I am still convinced of my innocence and I ask him not to panic.

After four hours, a woman officer comes to fetch me. She appears high-handed but I remain pleasant, feeling sure that behind the mask is a decent human being who wants the same things as myself: a happy life in a peaceful, prosperous country. She is joined by another woman colleague, and together they act as though I am guilty of a big crime, that under Posa the police have a right to be informed of any public gathering (even a birthday party or church mass), and that I can get a lawyer if I want. They then charge me with holding a public gathering without informing the police.

They take my fingerprints, three copies. I remain cool. Why should I worry; no crime has been committed, of that I am sure. My husband brings me lunch, and I delve into the meal with gusto. The woman officer interviewing me is having black tea and plain bread for lunch. I feel for her and she notices it.

The first night

I am taken to the cells. An officer tells me I should remove my shoes since I am now a prisoner. He assigns a woman officer to supervise me who orders me to remove my bra; I am left in a sleeveless top. They take my cell phone and ask me to hand over all my money. I have a few Zimbabwe dollars and $13. An officer looks greedily at the United States money and asks if I declared it at the border. He realises that he can’t get away with snatching the money and puts it down.

I join other women prisoners in a day room and they ask me why I am in. "Posa", I sigh. They clap hands and welcome me: "You are a brave sister and we are here for Posa too." We sit and introduce ourselves. In the next two hours, most of the women arrested under Posa are released. My husband brings me more food – half a chicken and some chips. I share it with two girls who are in for forgery and shoplifting respectively; the first explains that she was desperate to get work and had forged an “O” Level certificate so she could get a job as a tailor in the army; the second says that this is her profession and even boasts that it pays well.

At around 9pm, we are sent to sleep in the smelly, filthy cells. The cells are roughly six meters squared, containing a toilet that does not flush; the stench is overpowering. Ten of us share three dirty blankets full of lice. With my short-sleeved blouse, I cannot take the lice bites and resolve to spread my newspaper on the floor and sleep there.

After turning and tossing forever, sometimes just sitting up straight since the floor is cold, dawn finally comes. An officer arrives to take us to the day rooms.

The second night

Albert and our friends have found a lawyer for me. But they are misinformed that I am being held at Chitungwiza prison, thirty kilometers from Harare. Rangu, from Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, wastes his journey there. At noon, my husband and friends are finally allowed to speak to me for two minutes. Albert is angry, and I see him trying to control himself; my friend Margie looks serious but composed. We speak briefly and an officer asks them in very low tones to bring me something warm to wear.

They bring lots of food; rice, meat for maybe three people, potatoes, bread, bananas, apples, drinks. The officers and other prisoners look on enviously. I share it with three women prisoners who seem on the point of collapse. I also give some to the crying child of a vagrant woman.

The day is uneventful. New prisoners arrive, most in various stages of shock. We laugh, talk, and counsel one another. At night, it is back to the excrement-covered cell. This time, I manage to catch some sleep on the floor. But I am becoming angrier by the minute. Why am I in prison?

I get a hearty breakfast in the morning and share it with three people, including one man who says that he is starving. Two young men in prison under Posa slip into our day room and we talk and laugh with them; one of the woman prisoners is his girlfriend. She looks distraught and homesick. I try to cheer them up. I explain non-violence to them and they gape at me, interested about the prospects of making soldiers and police officer their friends in the struggle for food and jobs.

A longer version of Netsai Mushonga’s experience was first published in kubatana.net

Release

Around 12.30 on Thursday 10 November, after two nights in Harare police station, an officer comes to tell me that I am free to go. I pack my bags and after hasty goodbyes I leave my food with my two new friends: the shoplifter and the forger. The senior woman officer tells me that they will prepare a docket and later send me a summons. Rangu tells me that the attorney-general's office threw out the case and therefore they had to release me after the mandatory forty-eight hours. He says that this is the end, as there is no case to start with.

We head home. I feel angry. A fire has been ignited deep inside me. I expect that people around me would be angry with me, but they are not. Instead, my friends and colleagues are angry with the law and the system. They realise that I have been a victim. It’s one thing to talk of injustices, another to be a direct victim.

I am wary of the suffering and stress that my family went through during my ordeal, especially my husband. Thanks to them and all my friends’ support during this ordeal. I am blessed to have all of you.

What happens next? I now know what Posa means. I now know about unlawful arrests and detentions. Non-violence principle number four has taught me that unearned suffering is strengthening. Our society still needs non-violence and peace education and we will continue to give it.


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