Security forces in Zimbabwe kill 12 protesters in broadest crackdown on unrest in years

Security forces in Zimbabwe kill 12 protesters in broadest crackdown on unrest in years

Where is SADC or African Union ?

Security forces in Zimbabwe kill 12 protesters in broadest crackdown on unrest in years

NAIROBI — It was midnight when soldiers threatened to burn Jennifer Mutobaya and her three teenage sons alive inside their home in the Zimbabwean town of Kadoma. Protesters had filled the streets earlier, chanting slogans and burning tires, joining a display of fury at a hike in fuel prices that is part of a broader economic collapse in this southern African country.

The scene at her home was one repeated hundreds of times across Zimbabwe over the past week as security forces launched their biggest crackdown on dissent in years.

“They took away my two sons and ordered them to clear the road that was barricaded with burning tires using their bare hands,” said Mutobaya, who is a street vendor. “I tried to intervene, and they beat me with an electric cable.”

Elvis, a carpenter in the Highfields neighborhood of the capital, Harare, is covered in scars after a similar raid.

“They beat me and my wife with a sjambok in front of our kids, saying we were part of the riots,” he said. A sjambok is a whip usually made of leather. The soldiers, armed with automatic rifles, then made him roll in mud.

He asked that his last name not be used for fear of reprisals.

The door-to-door operation has led to 12 deaths, 78 gunshot wounds, hundreds of instances of assault or torture, and enough arrests to fill prisons beyond capacity, according to the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, an umbrella organization that compiles reports from observers across the country.

It comes in response to unrest and a call for a nationwide “shutdown” provoked by a government-implemented 150 percent price hike on fuel. Faith in the government of Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was cheered when he deposed longtime leader Robert Mugabe in 2017, is quickly dwindling. The potential for further unrest and widespread reports of looting that have accompanied the protests will only plunge Zimbabwe into deeper economic misery.

Mnangagwa left the country as soon as he announced the new fuel prices, embarking on a string of state visits to Russia and former Soviet states. He left a deputy known for his heavy hand, former army commander Constantino Chiwenga, in charge.

“Leaving after such an announcement, which he knew would be like lighting a match to gas — its hard not to question his judgment,” said Piers Pigou, a southern African analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Zimbabwe’s police and army held a joint news conference on Saturday in which they chalked up the crackdown to thieves who had stolen uniforms from security forces. And the ruling party’s chairman blamed the protests on the main opposition party’s “terrorist agenda.”

George Charamba, a government spokesman, addressed the protesters from a stop in Azerbaijan where he was traveling with Mnangagwa.

“The response so far is just a foretaste of things to come,” he said. Mnangagwa was in Kazakhstan on an official state visit on Monday but canceled plans to attend the annual economic summit in Davos, Switzerland, so he could return to Zimbabwe.

A spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change, the opposition party, said five of its members of parliament were under arrest and four others were unaccounted for.

Mnangagwa was elected president in a contested election last July. He promised to return foreign investment to Zimbabwe, which had spent more than a decade under broad international sanctions because of Mugabe’s repressive rule.

But he has been slow in weeding out the corruption that dissuades many investors from entering the Zimbabwean market, and his failure to attract foreign currency has contributed to the economy’s continued slide.

The country does not have a currency of its own, and much of people’s money is locked up in accounts that have no foreign reserves to back them. Inflation is spiraling upward, and new price stickers are printed every day, triggering shortages of everything from cooking oil to medicine and decimating people’s savings.

“There’s a general agreement that Zimbabwe has a potential to rebound relatively quickly,” Pigou said. “But also a growing understanding that it’s the predatory political structure that pollutes the economic arena.”

Soldiers last came onto Zimbabwean streets on Aug. 1, right after the election, in response to pro-opposition protests that turned into riots in downtown Harare. Six were killed.

The much broader ongoing crackdown has terrified many Zimbabweans and left them wondering who is in charge of their government.

“The big question is: Do we have a slow coup unfolding again?” asked Frances Lovemore, who directs the Counseling Services Unit, an organization that treats victims of organized violence.

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