A night in hell, Zimbabwe style

GALZ compound in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 20009. (Photo courtesy of GlobalGayz.com)

GALZ compound in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 2009. (Photo courtesy of GlobalGayz.com)

In this year-end recollection, Miles Tanhira of the activist group Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ)  describes last August’s police raid of GALZ headquarters, during which office equipment was seized and dozens of members were arrested. The organization has since closed its office. Police have not returned the property they seized.

By Miles Tanhira

I’ve always wondered what hell feels like. Now I know.

August 11 will always remain etched in my memories as a great day gone bad. What started off as a historic moment with the launch of our first-ever documentation of LGBT violations recorded in 2011 ended in tears and pain.

The drama began when we heard the guard alerting us that there were five policemen by the gate, demanding to gain entry into the premises. Following procedure, the guard had asked for a search warrant and the police were getting agitated. The police superior, who was seething with anger, was shouting at the guards, demanding that the gate be opened. He had parked his big white truck blocking the gate such that no one could get into the premises or come out.

Security wires were ripped off the top of the wall around the GALZ compound by people scaling it to escape. (Photo by Miles Tanhira)

Security wires were ripped off the top of the wall around the GALZ compound by people scaling it to escape. (Photo by Miles Tanhira)

All this was happening while we were stuck inside. Fear of the unknown had gripped some who had already started jumping the huge security wall oblivious of the electric razor wire. Others who couldn’t be bothered continued dancing to the music. A few jumped and escaped safely. Others must have  sustained injuries as they jostled to flee, a few unfortunate ones were caught by alert police officers who were manning the  area after they discovered people were  escaping.

In an hour’s time, a human rights lawyer came into the premises and spoke with me. He said he was going to communicate with the police outside the gate but he never made it back inside.

Button stick

Button stick as swung by police in Zimbabwe

How the riot squad, wearing helmets and armed with crowd-control button sticks, got into the premises still remains a point of confusion for me. All I remember is hearing orders for the DJ to stop the music and for everyone to seat or lie down where they were standing. The squad was violent, rowdy and screaming obscenities.

By then they had already started beating people up. They ordered us to move from the pool table area where most of us were gathered.

“Hold each other’s belt, and move in a single file. If you use one hand to hold the next person’s belt, you will get a thorough beating,” they shouted.

When we got to the GALZ reception area, they made all of us sit by the driveway.

“Switch off your cellphones. From now on there is no network, no talking, no smiling, no questioning, no movement or you will die,” officers screamed.

An officer ordered one unfortunate guy sitting next to me to remove his colorful wrist band.  While he was still doing that, he was summoned to the front where three officers slapped him. Just as he sat down again, they discovered that his phone was still on. He was ordered to the front again this time. They hit him hard with button sticks. Police shouted obscenities, and told him he was going to suffer once we got to their base. We were made to count ourselves by shouting numbers; any mistake or stuttering warranted a beating.

After about ten minutes, we were told to stand up and repeat the belt-holding exercise. This time two officers made what they called a fence. If you failed to pass though you would be slapped. Once you got close to that fence they would lower it, making it impossible to pass through and all two officers slapped and kicked us as we passed. We got a thorough beating  from different police officers.

IN THE TRUCK

GALZ members, including our guards, were force-marched into trucks parked outside. As we got into the back of the trucks we were slapped, beaten with the sticks and kicked. In the truck we were arbitrarily beaten and shouted at, using profanities.

One of the injuries during the raid. (Photo by Miles Tanhira)

One of the injuries during the raid. (Photo by Miles Tanhira)

The silence among us was deafening. If you dropped a needle you could have heard it fall. You could smell the fear in the truck. We didn’t know where they were taking us.  No one dared ask or say anything except for one colleague who said she had lost a phone and pleaded to get off the truck to look for it.  Although some friends had seen a female officer picking it up, they couldn’t tell her then for fear of being targeted for beatings.

While in the truck we got our feet stumped on and kicked for sitting comfortably and wasting space. The button sticks were used to hit our heads as we were ordered to make space for others to fit, like sardines. About 25 of us were packed in one small pickup truck. When our colleague returned without her phone, we took off.

I held onto my partner’s hand. She was now sobbing. An officer who had asked if she was Mozambican had just slapped her hard on the face before she could even respond. I was terrified.  I didn’t know what was going to happen to me once I got to wherever they were taking us.

Still slapping people and shouting obscenities, the officers asked the guys if they were circumcised. Those who said they were not were slapped. Those who said they were circumcised were insulted.

“You got circumcised to put your @@@@ in another man’s anus. You are disgusting,” one officer screamed.

When we had travelled for about three minutes, the truck ran out of fuel and they took fuel from a plastic container they had.  They blamed us for this, saying, “You people have sins. That’s why this car is so heavy and consuming a lot of fuel.”

IN THE POLICE STATION — EVENING

Harare central police station.

Harare central police station.

At the central police station, we sat on the floor and one police officer took down our names. We where harassed. Each of the officers came to see the ‘’gays.”  We were paraded around. One officer identified one of our colleagues as one who had appeared a few months ago in a local tabloid. He alerted other officers and told them about the “gay boy” who was “posing as a woman,” as reported in the sensationalist tabloid HMetro. They started hitting him and ridiculing him, using unprintable words.  During the parade one police officer was able to identify me, since he worked with my father. He quickly shouted for others to come and see.

Once in the cells, we were separated — women and men. The men were locked up in  one dirty cell with poor lighting and a dirty floor covered with urine. The women and myself were ordered to sit on a concrete bench. When all the others in the trucks had come, the men were moved from that cell to another place. We were made to stay in there.

Some people started crying. They were worried about missing curfews and about  lost handbags and other valuables. Some switched on their phones to record what was happening, making sure that the police did not see them.

Once we asked the police officer to escort us to the toilet. She became rude, saying we were not serious and ordering us to behave like adults and hold our bowels.

“We have had older women here and they can control they bowels.  You are being stubborn so I will not take you,” she said. After a few minutes of begging and pleading, she gave in.

GALZ website

GALZ website

For three hours we didn’t know our fate, until we saw an SMS from someone outside, saying our lawyer was going to talk to the police. People had renewed hopes.  Those were dashed when we heard a few minutes later that the lawyer had been denied access to us. We were going to spend the night in the cells.

This was a disaster. Being in the cells for three hours was painful, and the thought of the whole night or even three more days made people break down. It was Saturday of a holiday weekend [with Heroes' Day celebrated on Monday, Aug. 13]. People began to cry even worse. Myself I was now confused and terrified, knowing that the police are notorious for detaining people, especially during such long holidays.

We were thirsty and hungry.  Some women began their periods. A colleague sobbed after hearing news from home that a relative had passed on. The atmosphere grew even more somber.

IN THE POLICE STATION — MIDNIGHT TO 3 A.M.

We had nothing to do beside counting hours. Time did not seem to move. This was the longest night.  By midnight we had gotten tired of sitting in the dark on the cold, wet floor.

At around 2 a.m., the police officer ordered us to remove shoes, socks, vests, bras and tights. We were to keep just one piece of clothing to cover the upper body and one for the lower body. We were going to the infamous, dehumanizing detention cells.

They took down our names, addresses and occupations, which were recorded in a huge book. Each of us got a white paper with a number written on it. The officer told us to remove any valuables, jewelry or phones for storage.

I was infuriated and scared at the same time. It was very cold, the floors were filthy yet we had to walk with bare feet. My blood began to race. Were they going to conduct body searches?

I began to shiver. My teeth were chattering. Just as we had finished deciding which piece of clothing would remain on the body,  three guys from our team came in, carrying one of our members who was foaming from the mouth and shaking.

We clung to each other to keep warm. We shared one jersey which was rotated so every one could be warm for a bit. The  urine on the  floor, huge rats, bloody walls, dirty toilets and no lighting were enough to make one throw up with fear.

All this time, police officers would preach to us about how bad homosexuality is and that we should relocate  if we want to be gay.

“It’s Satanism. It’s evil. It’s learned at girls-only schools,” they said.

As they continued talking about homosexuality, a colleague asked why they were calling us that and why they had arrested us. Because they had arrested us at GALZ, attending a meeting for gays, the officer said. This meant we were gays as well, adding that this was an offense according to Zimbabwean law. [Sexual activity between men is punishable by up to one year in prison in Zimbabwe.]

IN THE POLICE STATION — 3:30 TO 6:15 A.M.

Miles Tanhira

Miles Tanhira

At around 3:30 a.m., two officers came in shouting obscenities and being very rude and violent. They ordered  all 13 of us out of the cell, screaming that we were evil  disabled people who did not know where to draw the line.

“Murikupandukira nyika  mangochani evanhu, Zimbabwe inyika yakanaka hatidi izvozvo muno,” they said. (“You want to overthrow the government, Zimbabwe is a beautiful country and we will not allow homosexuality here.”)

A senior officer questioned the other officers: Were they sure that all of the people claiming to be men were really men and those saying they are women were indeed women?

“Have you verified these people? You can’t trust them. They could be lying,” he said.

They ordered us to shout our names and surnames and addresses again. They would shout, “Sex?” to which we were all supposed to say, “Female.”  They demanded to have our names and addresses for the fourth time. We were each asked if we were homosexuals and why we were at a homosexual haven and how we got to know about GALZ.

The senior officer was visibly drunk. He said we were disabled people who could live in Zimbabwe only if we stopped our rotten behavior.  He demanded each of us to take out booklets that we allegedly had.

“Where is your constitution [for Zimbabwe] which you are making. We hear you are trying to  overthrow the government. This time you will suffer,” he shouted.

He threatened to report some of our colleagues so they so they could be dismissed from work. After interrogating and hurling insults at us for about fifteen minutes while we stood in the cold, he ordered us to get back into the cells.

At around 4 a.m., the female officer came again and requested our names and addresses. They had copies of our violations report and demanded to know who among us had participated at the GALZ meeting.

Everyone denied having been to a meeting. This infuriated the policewoman and her male colleague. They began to read the report aloud, looking for incriminating contents. After about 30 minutes they came back into the cell and demanded to know who Tanhira was. I was scared. I was so sure they had seen my name in the report. I answered that it was me. She did not say anything. Instead she went back to the desk and continued reading the report.

After about 15 minutes, two officers came in to take the guy who had collapsed to a hospital, since he was taking a long time to regain consciousness.

RELEASE

At around 6.15 a.m., the same senior officer who had accused us of plotting to overthrow the government gave the order for us to be released.

GALZ Violations Report 2011

GALZ Violations Report 2011

The junior officer, who seemed confused, wanted to know what was happening. The senior officer screamed that we should be released quickly, but they had to take down our names and addresses again before letting us out. As I was giving my name the officers questioned why I had contributed in the report [the report of LGBT-related violations that GALZ recorded in 2011] that they were holding, accusing me of making a joke of their job. It was time to go home. I couldn’t be bothered. I simply refused to be drawn into that argument.

We were glad to be out of that God-forsaken place, where our experience had been frustrating and scary. We had suffered harassment for close to 12 hours, only to be released without any charges or explanations. All our personal details had been recorded close to five times in a huge book by different police officers.

MEN’S SUFFERING

Once outside the police station, we shared stories of grief, pain and torture.

Button stick in use.

Zimbabwe police use button sticks.

We learned what the guys had suffered while they were in their own cells. Some  were  made to slap each other and were subjected to arbitrary beatings with button sticks all night.

Some had to squat, doing a frog jump, going up and down the cells’ huge hall.  They were ordered to lie down while police officers with their boots walked  walk on people’s backs.

The guys  were also made to admit to being gay and to pair up as lovers and to imitate women’s behavior. Those who refused were beaten up.

WHAT’S NEXT?

A few days later we were to learn that the  police were launching a man hunt for all those who had been arrested. They visited our homes and workplaces. Many were “outed” and some were dismissed from work.

For most of us, who know that the police all our personal details. we still live in fear. After our ordeal in the cells, we  know what the police are capable of.

After a second raid on the GALZ offices, they remain closed. Once again the LGBTI community has been pushed underground.  But one thing’s for sure: Speaking out will get us into trouble, but silence definitely will not protect us.

About Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart, a 40-year journalism veteran, is publisher and an editor of the "Erasing 76 Crimes" blog. More profile information on Google+. Colin Stewart, un vétéran du journalisme de 40 ans, est éditeur et rédacteur en chef du blog "Erasing 76 Crimes." Plus d'informations de profil sur Google+.
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4 Responses to A night in hell, Zimbabwe style

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