For years Jestina Mukoko, a former television news broadcaster, had run a group called the Zimbabwe Peace Project, documenting human rights abuses, from torture to rape to murder.
But Mukoko, Colby’s 2010 Oak Human Rights Fellow, did not expect to become a case for her own files.
In December 2008 secret police abducted Mukoko from her home outside the capital, Harare. Bundling her off in her nightdress, they held her in a secret location for three weeks, beating her with a rubber truncheon and forcing her to kneel on gravel as they tried to force her to confess to trumped-up charges of conspiring against the government and to name the sources of her group’s reports.
“I was told I had only two choices,” Mukoko said. “Either becoming a state witness or going extinct.”
Despite being tortured, the prominent human rights activist did neither, and eventually she was allowed to appear in a Harare court—but only after international pressure was brought to bear on the Mugabe government, with luminaries including Condoleezza Rice and Kofi Annan demanding her release. She was freed after three months in custody and, with increased security, immediately went back to work on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe. Mukoko and her colleagues are gearing up for elections expected to be held next spring—and for monitoring related abuses.
How does one return to the work that brought such personal trauma? “There’s no way that I can move on now,” she said. “I think that the fact that they have done this to me demonstrates the impact of the work that we are doing. I also feel that, with the assistance that I got from human rights defenders throughout the world, I need to give back in relation to Zimbabweans who suffer political violence.”
Because Mukoko worked as anchor of a national television news program, she is well known throughout her country. “They are not in the same position as me, and they might not be able to amplify their voice to be heard.”
Mukoko was honored by the Oak Institute for the Study of International Human Rights at Colby. She is teaching a course, Incarceration and Human Rights: The Challenges Facing Human Rights Defenders, examining the political climate in Zimbabwe that has led to repression of critics of the government.
—Gerry Boyle ’78