Opinion

Monday 10 December 2018

Year by year the body surrenders unable to stem the logic of ageing

Diary

ELECTION CHAOS: Riot police enter the Bronte hotel, where a press conference by opposition leader Nelson Chamisa was scheduled to take place, in Harare, Zimbabwe. Photo: AP
ELECTION CHAOS: Riot police enter the Bronte hotel, where a press conference by opposition leader Nelson Chamisa was scheduled to take place, in Harare, Zimbabwe. Photo: AP

Fergal Keane

Ardmore

I set out for here a week ago exactly. But it is only now that the strains of the place I left are leaving me. Am I imagining it, or have my powers of recovery diminished? Year by year the body surrenders, unable to stem the remorseless logic of ageing. I felt it in Harare when the army advanced up the broad street beside ZANU-PF headquarters and people were fleeing in all directions. The jeeps had their headlights blazing and they were headed towards us.

After an initial canter out of the road I was overcome with weariness. This was physical and mental. "To hell with them," I thought to myself, "I am not running. Not any more." I was rebelling against these goons in military uniform. But also against every goon I had ever been chased or intimidated by. Over the years there have been plenty in and out of uniform. I was suddenly furious. We had heard the gunfire echoing across the streets. A colleague had messaged that he had seen a man shot dead in front of him.

How brave, I thought, to run about with an automatic weapon and aim it directly into a crowd of civilians you know to be unarmed. At what military academy do they teach such acts of courage?

A jeep stopped in the middle of the road. A couple of soldiers jumped out and began racing after the fleeing protestors. One carried a rifle with a bayonet attached. He kicked the camera of a colleague, smashing the lens. Another lashed at a girl with a long rubber whip. Then bang. I was thrown backwards with immense force. My breath vanished and I fell. "I'm sorry. Terribly sorry," a voice said. I looked up to see a young man running away. He had barrelled into me while escaping the army. Then came the soldier with his bayonet jabbing at the back of another fleeing human being. Some colleagues began to run. "Don't run," I shouted to them. This was not out of courage, or defiance, but the instinct for self-preservation. To the heavily armed and indisciplined soldier, the fleeing figure is a far too tempting target. If you run you must be guilty. So we walked and raised our hands. 'Look, see, we are not a threat to you.' But, of course, we were. Not to them directly but to their paymasters, whoever it was who decided it would be a clever idea to use lethal force to disperse protestors in full view of the world's media and hundreds of election monitors from across the world. There was a public order problem in central Harare on that day. And there are opposition leaders who need to examine their behaviour. Repeatedly claiming that you have won the election before the result is announced and telling people that it has been stolen was a bad idea from day one. It could only end in anger. And that anger was always likely to end up on the streets.

But the opposition could never have guessed that the army would be sent out to shoot unarmed demonstrators in what is meant to be a new Zimbabwe. Nobody anticipated that, except those who gave the order. What a mess. The Zimbabwean government had all the goodwill in the world going for it but someone high up - not the president I am told - decided to revert to the most ugly, totalitarian type. A demonstration that could easily have been dispersed by conventional riot control was broken up with high velocity rounds. And Zimbabwe tumbled backwards. I left not knowing who was in charge but with a fairly hefty suspicion that it wasn't the modernising, outward- looking faction that had the upper hand. What happens now? Well, all that lovely investment and aid won't be flowing anytime soon. Not until the world knows that there is accountability for the crimes committed in central Harare on that unhappy day.

******

The sun has vanished. We woke to the tap tap of encroaching rain. It is not here yet but soon the remnants of Storm Debby will have come in from the Atlantic.

I know these days on the Fuchsia coast and how to survive them. Get into the car and head for the Comeraghs and be drenched walking up to Mahon Falls, or drive the Blackwater valley with stories of Spenser and Raleigh and their depredations during the Munster Plantation, stopping for tea in Cappoquin and then on through Villierstown and Dromana estate, an Ireland of the imagination and dripping trees.

To be fair the last week has been kind. There were good days on Curragh beach, clear nights with glistening stars, and the shock of cold water on early morning swims.

We walked in the deep dark of Ballyquin and told ghost stories to children who half-believed us. I am typing away in the living room of my friends John and Paula King and looking out at the enveloping fog. My own small cottage is full of sleeping children and their friends, not a place to compose thoughts and write. The middle boy of the Keatings is asleep on the couch. As I crept out he opened his eye and smiled and then went back to sleep. Good luck to these summer children. Let them sleep late and wake to the growing tempo of the rain on our tin roof. Let luck follow them all their lives.

Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent and Africa Editor

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