How a Baby Became a Victim of Mugabe’s Brutality

For five days, I've been looking everywhere for Blessing Mabhena, ever since I read newspaper reports about the child, a cute little one-year-old baby with big eyes and two stumpy little legs in casts, who had suffered the wrath of ruling party thugs who couldn't find the infant's parents. The baby could easily, I thought, be the poster child for this entire vicious election process and the waning years of Comrade Bob.

Finally, on Wednesday night, I found Blessing. The search itself was illuminating. Anywhere else, tracking down a horror story of this sort would be Journalism 101—a few phone calls and bingo, two or three degrees of separation at most. People want to get stories like this out, and especially where there's a big, organized opposition, they do get out. Not in this case, though. It's possible of course to talk to activists with the Movement for Democratic Change, the opposition party, but for the most part they're no longer coming to their offices, so they're scattered around town, hiding out in their homes or in the homes of friends.

And they're often on the run. About 250 MDC activists and their families, including many children and mothers with babies on their backs, camped out on the sidewalk in front of the U.S. embassy here in Harare on Thursday. Most in the group said they had been chased by police from their refuge in the MDC headquarters building. Many have casts or show others signs of having been recently injured. "We're tired, hungry and we have no place to go," said one man who provided only his first name, Simba. "Our homes have been burned out, our villages have been burned out. And if we go back, they say they are going to beat us again." A U.S. embassy spokesman said they have been getting refugees all week in smaller numbers, which they have referred to safehouses. But they're now running out of places to send people.

All of this makes it hard for anti-Mugabe forces to organize, and difficult to exchange information. And the climate of fear just breeds more fear, so even after we did found MDC folks who knew about the case of the injured baby, they weren't willing to tell us where the child and mother were.

Human rights groups, of which there are several, were not much help either. At the ZimRights Association on Fourth Street, they'd never heard of the case, and were so atremble at a visit from a foreign journalist that I'm not sure they would have said if they did know. Over at the offices of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, up on the eighth floor of Harare's pre-eminent office building, the Eastgate, I didn't even get that far. The doors were padlocked even though it was office hours, but a voice came over the intercom. I told them who I was and they said they'd come out presently, but after a quarter of an hour, it seemed as likely that they were summoning the authorities as trying to figure out whether to talk to a journalist, and so finally I left.

Then I found a human rights activist working from her home who at first said she knew where the baby was. She told me just to call back after she checked with the family and her protectors, who are watching after them in their hiding place. Then I called later and she no longer knew where the baby was, but the protectors were in a meeting—all day. Finally, she said she didn't know where Blessing was, and suggested I try the hospitals. Which of course, I had, long before.

How I finally found the little girl I can't say, without putting someone at risk, but suffice it to say she was in a compound surrounded with high walls where there were a couple dozen families, all of them displaced by the election violence, and still too afraid to return to their homes. Among the displaced people was a woman in her late 20s named Loveness (she asked that I not use her last name), and her daughter, the baby in question. She had been released from the hospital the day before. Turned out the child's name was not Blessing Mabhena—that was the name of a nurse who had cared for her—but rather Delani, 1 year old. But the story essentially checked out.

Loveness' husband (name also withheld) is a municipal council member, elected on the MDC ticket in the March 29 first round of elections. A gang of so-called War Veterans had been rampaging through their neighborhood, vowing to find him and kill him. (I say "so-called" because as so often happens with the war veterans here, they're usually little more than political thugs masquerading under the banner of the liberation struggle against white-ruled Rhodesia; there are no actual war veterans here younger than 48, and most of these groups comprise men in their 30s and even 20s). Loveness's husband was in hiding and though they threatened her to reveal his location, she insisted she didn't know. But she knew they'd come back, and carry out their threats to beat it out of her if she didn't talk. So when they came bursting in downstairs, she crawled under her bed and left her baby, Delani, lying on top of it. "When they couldn't find me," she recalled, "they said, 'Let's kill the baby', and threw her down on the floor." They did it with such force that both her ankles were broken. 

They easily could have killed the baby, but did not. That's the pattern here, in fact. While there have been 80 recorded deaths from election violence, and human rights activists claim another 200-500 missing who may be dead, there are thousands of victims of violence who weren't killed, and that has to be deliberate policy. When someone is being beaten with iron bars and clubs by a large group of people, killing them would be easy; not killing them takes an effort at some sort of purposeful restraint. And killing a defenseless baby would have been an easy matter indeed.

I'm not sure just why that is, but I have no doubt that it's premeditated. When the three white farmers were beaten savagely last Sunday, they were told they would be killed, and the victims no doubt believed it. But in the end, despite any sort of intervention, they weren't killed. Perhaps the regime wants to be able to say, as its apologists constantly do, that Zimbabwe's election violence is small change compared to, say, the violence that marred recent elections in Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. Far more people died in Kenya's disputed election than have died in this one. "Kenya—hah, there they were chopping people up with machetes," says Jonathan Moyo, an independent MP and a former information minister in Robert Mugabe's government. "Mugabe's people are carrying sticks. One dead body was one too many, but look at Matebeleland in '81 and '87, and the '85 election there, there was much more violence." Thousands died.

That is not to make light of the terroristic effects of the ZANU-PF violence against its opponents. Many of these people will be physically crippled and psychologically scarred their entire lives. Their tormentors knew what they were doing and went about it with a savage methodism, not only stopping short of killing them, but also wounding them in ways that would create enduring, painful reminders. One common beating tactic, for instance, was to flay a person's buttocks with clubs and sticks until the subcutaneous tissue and muscle was exposed, and then pour scalding water and sometimes even sewage on the open wound. The result, in many cases, is that such victims may well never sit comfortably again.

The baby Delani's injuries, similarly, will be a lifelong reminder to her parents. She'll need multiple surgeries on both ankles, and from what the local doctors told Loveness, they're not sure she'll ever walk properly. Her casts had just been taken off the day I saw her, so she didn't make quite such a dramatic picture—but it's evident how inwardly twisted her ankles are, and she cries from the pain whenever she's awake, unless she's on the breast. Just 12 months of age, Delani had only recently started standing up and trying to take her first wobbly steps when this happened. Her unformed ankle joints were probably the most vulnerable part of her. And in order to do such damage, it's likely that someone held the child by the arms and swung her overhead with great force. Just tumbling her from the bed would not have done it, as any parent will know.

Will that sort of violence have the intended effect? It certainly has succeeded in sending MDC supporters underground, and even nearly a week after the runoff election, many of them are still in hiding—especially if their homes, often destroyed, are back in rural constituencies. Or will it, in the end, only make people angrier come the inevitable day of reckoning for ZANU-PF? As the ruling party and its henchmen can only be too painfully aware, they are very much in the minority in the country they have governed so poorly for so long. Loveness says her husband is still in hiding, but he managed to rendezvous briefly with her and Delani. "We don't know if there's going to be peace," she said, "or if he'll be killed when he comes out of hiding. He says he's going to be brave and continue the struggle, and I want him to." What mother would not?