The 2010 Oak Fellow for Human Rights, Jestina Mukoko, is national director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, which documents human rights abuses in the country. A former television broadcaster, Mukoko was abducted by security agents in Zimbabwe in December 2008. Tortured and held in isolation, she was released three months later after international pressure was brought to bear. She spoke to Colby about her ordeal, its lasting effects, and her organization’s mission.
Were there times when you feared you wouldn’t survive?
Oh, yes. I was threatened with death. I was told I had only two choices. Either becoming a state witness or going extinct. Those were the exact words that they used. What they meant by that was that no one would be able to find my body. And I have known that things like that have happened in the past, and I could not put it past them. There was also a time when I was asked where I had left my son. I said, “I left him at home.” And they then said, “Are you sure that he’s still at home?”
You can imagine what that does to a mother. In the place where they were keeping me, I could tell the other voices, and now I kept on asking myself—the other voices that I hear, do I hear my son’s voice? I was no longer sure. And for a long time, that really hurt me. That hurt me so bad. I had no way of finding out, because every time I left the room in which they kept me, I had to be blindfolded. Every time I went to the bathroom, I had to be blindfolded. And every time I would hear people speak, I would really strain myself to try and see if I could tell if it was my son’s voice. It was only after a while, when I had gone into interrogation, I said to the guys, “Can I use the phone?” I knew that was going to come as a surprise to them, to ask for the phone. The next thing they said was, “Who do you want to phone?” I said, “I want to talk to my son.” And one of them then said, “I hope you didn’t take us seriously the other day when we spoke about your son.” So for me, it meant they knew what they had done.
Did they continue the beatings after that?
I would say I was severely tortured on the first day, which was the third of December. Physically, that is. I recognize from the fourth of December they kind of drew back in terms of the physical torture. I’m not sure it was the effect of the pressure, the publicity that was going with it. But at the time, I wasn’t sure. There was a guy who always said, “You are lying.” And every time I would look around to see if they had their weapons of torture. It was only on the fifth day, which was the eighth of December, when I was made to kneel on gravel. I would say physically those are the cases when I suffered in terms of torture. But I would say the psychological torture continued all the time. I think that was even more painful, in terms of [things like] you had to ask someone to go to the bathroom. And you had to let somebody know that you’ve got your periods. I had grown up to be a woman taught in childhood that that’s a private thing that you don’t announce to everyone. But because I was no longer in control of what was happening to me, I had to give this information to other people.
Was that dehumanizing?
It was. It was.
Were they all men?
There was one woman.
Your colleagues, did they suffer the same fate?
Yes, my colleague from my organization, and also a driver from my organization, who were abducted on the same day, the driver, he says he just received a clap [on the head]and they just left him for all of that time But my other colleague was also tortured. I think during the time we were going to court, the soles of his feet had blackened because of the torture he had gone through. I still suffer in terms of my feet. I still feel a lot of pain because of what I went through.
And I think in discussion with some of the political activists, the women I eventually had to stay with, in the maximum security prison, they were also talking about torture that they experienced at the hands of these people.
Have you ever seen your torturers again? On the outside?
I have been looking, since the time that I got bail. My driver will say he has noticed me look in crowds of people.
You had been a prominent television journalist in Zimbabwe and were still well known in the country. Did you ever expect you would be imprisoned?
I never expected it. Actually I didn’t see it coming because I believed that I’ve always been a law-abiding citizen of Zimbabwe. I think what’s pained me the most is that, having spent my prime years at the state broadcaster, the same people that I worked for over ten years, who would have known me as an individual, were the same people who were labeling me a terrorist. I would have thought that, since those people had worked with me, I would think out of professionalism and ethics in journalism, they could have taken time to come and speak to me. And get my side of the story. But that never happened. I really felt that things are just not working properly. Strings are being controlled from some remote place that is not within the broadcasting authority itself.
Did anyone contact you at all? Or attempt to?
No one at all. They would just have their side of the story and there would never have been anyone looking for me or my family, to talk to me, asking, “What are these allegations that are being leveled against you?” Because in journalism I believe there are always two sides to a story. Whoever is being accused, they should also be given the position to be able to reply, the right of reply, but that I never got in terms of the state-run media agencies.
Was there any positive that came from your abduction?
The message was driven home—they could not ignore the pressure that they were receiving from within Zimbabwe, and internationally as well. I think they must have been surprised by the way the world believed in the work that I do. And the people who knew me knew that these were trumped-up charges. International organizations like Amnesty International, their secretary general [Irene Kahn] came to Zimbabwe. That was before my case was finalized. She wanted to know what the process was in terms of my case. And I think that they realized that the more that they delayed with this case, it was really going to paint a black picture of them.
I am anticipating that we could see if the government has learnt its lesson, probably next year, because we are likely to have elections next year. And when we have elections, this is when tempers really flare.
So will they let the elections take place fairly?
That remains to be seen.
But is Zimbabwe on the rise? Has it bottomed out?
I would say Zimbabwe did at some stage hit rock bottom, around 2008. But I would also want to say that there have been some improvements since then, as a result of the coming on of the inclusive government. We have noted improvements in particular in the socioeconomic sector, where inflation has been stabilized by the use of multi-currencies. We are now using the U.S. dollar, the South African rand, the Botswana pula… . Anything that you can get you can actually use it.
We now have hospitals that are operating. We have schools that are operating normally. The teachers have gone back to the classroom. And I think even for some of the things that we have been yearning for, as human rights defenders, we now have a human rights commission. We might differ in terms of what they’re supposed to do, but the fact that the human rights commission is in place is an improvement, it’s progress. And that fact, that we have a new commission that is going to look around the issue of elections.
Both parties are represented?
The two parties had an influence in terms of the members. And, I think in terms of the media, we’re still crying out for the liberalization of the airwaves. But in terms of the print media, the Zimbabwe Media Commission, which was also appointed in the inclusive government, licensed five newspapers. We have one newspaper that is already on the street. So if we get the other four on the street, that might mean that information dissemination might improve in Zimbabwe. But I think we still need to get the liberalization of the airwaves so that we get an alternative voice in terms of radio, in terms of television. Radio actually reaches more people than the television and the newspapers.
Do you think the government expected that by abducting you and imposing these charges your organization would stop its work?
I think so. I think that was what was expected. I’m happy to say that, even at the time when these things were going on, the board took a decision that reports would continue to be produced so that they would demonstrate that it wasn’t me producing these reports. It was an organization that we had built.
I think when they abducted me, they had already abducted some people who had been in their care for a month before the political elections, and not much was being said about those people. Even the Movement of Democratic Change as a party was not really applying a lot of pressure in terms of demanding their release.
I remember being interviewed by Voice of America, a month before I was abducted, about the disappearance of these people from a particular province. I said, as an organization we’re really concerned. It was a situation where you would find a line or two in the paper, after a week. After two weeks people are quiet. I think they thought that was going to be the same kind of thing with me. But then it was a totally different picture that they had to deal with. Because immediately as I was being taken away, my son was already communicating with my colleagues in human rights to say, “My mother has been taken from home.” So, by the time people got to their offices, messages were already going around that I had been abducted. And I think because of that they couldn’t prevent the kind of publicity going beyond borders. It really made it difficult for them to then manage the situation. Because I think they might not have thought of prosecuting me. But because there was this outcry, somehow I think it must have dawned on them to say, probably we need to say the person that you are talking about, that you are demanding, is not actually who you think she is. This is what she is capable of. And they didn’t know there was a lot waiting for them when they did that as well. For them to move to wanting me to be a state witness, and then to prosecute me, the two just don’t go together. ‘
Did you admit to anything?
I did not. I would say that after about five days, when they got my other colleague from the office, I was made to admit to having referred somebody to someone. Because they were saying that we have been told this, and you have to say it this way. I suppose that’s what they wanted. They wanted to extract a confession. And immediately when I met with my lawyer, that was the first thing that I told her. That they asked me to say one, two, three, but it is not the truth.
And obtained under duress?
Oh, yeah. Because they had the least of the people who they wanted to go after.
This major miscalculation on their part—does that reflect the insularity of the government, that they don’t understand the political climate outside?
I would say yes. And I think they also wanted to give the impression that they were not really worried about the work that ZPP does. They were really getting quite vicious and angry with me, questions like, how do you get accurate information that we read in your reports? My answer was simple. The people who give us that information live in the communities.
At some point I was given a piece of paper. They wanted me to write the names of the people who wrote their reports for us. I said, there’s no way I can do that. I can’t begin to know who does what where. I don’t even know that.
What are the goals of your organization moving forward?
The goals of our organization have not changed. Even with the rough patch that we went through. We still want to end impunity, because we believe it stifles the ability of citizens to be able to choose their leaders freely. Because we are particularly worried about violence at election time. Because this is when people jostle for power and this party is saying you vote for us and that party is saying you vote for us. And people are not able to exercise their right to vote freely. And we also feel that people who perpetrate violence need to account for their actions. And we still hold those values quite dearly. And I think for the years that we have been able to monitor and document around political violence, we have been able to establish in terms of the trends and patterns that have developed in the country. And we are able to sort of track the footprints of the perpetrators.
And I think this is the reason why we became a target. It was because our database is able to track the footprints of perpetrators. So I think we must have ruffled feathers in the very high offices in terms of talking about naming and shaming [the perpetrators]. But I think that Zimbabweans need to talk about violence when they experience it. And there should be organizations that should be able to give them redress and, by providing them with medical assistance and psycho-social support, also providing them with legal assistance.
Did this change the way you work?
I think it changed the way that I work in the sense that I am more conscious about my safety.
Even now. I really don’t want to take anything for granted. I think I have taken on more measures in terms of keeping myself safe. I no longer move around on my own. And, you know, I was the kind of person who would be in the office for probably two hours before everybody else arrived. And stay late and all that. I can’t do that anymore.
Can you be alone at home?
I had to move from the house from which they abducted me. Every time at dawn I would wake up, and I would imagine that they were at the gate again. And that made it really difficult for me to be comfortable in that house. And I eventually decided, when that case was finalized, I needed to move on. Because I thought I really needed to value my life more than anything.
Do they know where you live now?
They might know. It’s possible that they know.
Is the new home more conspicuous so they can’t come there without people noticing?
Yes. That I have done. It’s a place where, if anyone does come through, they will be seen by someone. And it’s a place where, if I scream, a lot of people will be able to come out. And I suppose if I make a call, colleagues will immediately come to my rescue, as compared to the place where I was at, which was forty kilometers away from Harare. So, if you pressed the panic button, it was not possible for people to come to your aid in time.
When you explain all of this or describe it to Colby students, what is their reaction?
I think the majority of them on the first day were kind of shell-shocked that this can happen. They just could not believe that something like this would happen to a human being.
But you are not quitting?
I was under a lot of pressure from my mother to move away from the work, but I then said to her, “There’s no way that I can move on now.” 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 also need to give back in relation to Zimbabweans who suffer political violence. They are not in the same position as me, and they might not be able to amplify their voice to be heard. So I’m saying I’m there and I want to be able to help them find their voices, so that the world is aware of the kind of abuses that people continue to suffer.
And it does continue?
Yes, it does. Just over the weekend there’s a constitution-making process that is happening, and the process had to be abandoned because of violence in Harare, the capital city. We have monitors from our organization who were briefly detained at one of the venues and were only released after several hours.
So in some ways it hasn’t changed at all?
No, it hasn’t.
What are your impressions of Waterville and Maine?
My impression of Waterville is that of tranquility, that of quiet. That gives me the safety that I so require. You know, when I go to bed I sleep through, knowing that I am away, I am far from the madding crowd. I don’t even think about anyone coming to the door. I think it’s such a good feeling that I’m experiencing at the moment. And the fact that I can get in the car and drive on my own. Last week I drove to South Portland on my own. You know, after my experience I’d also lost my confidence in driving a car or just being on my own. As a result I also lost my privacy in the process. Because I have to constantly be with someone. I can’t be on my own. And that means that my privacy has been invaded. So whoever I’m with, the driver I’m with, knows where I have gone and where I have not gone.
Do you feel any guilt being here and not on the front lines?
Not really. I feel that this is an opportunity for me to recharge my batteries. And they need to be recharged if we’re going to an election next year, there is need for me to get that oomph back into my system.
When is the election?
Usually we have the elections in March, but the date has not been announced.
So you’re girding yourself for what might follow?
At times you are not even sure how you need to ready yourself for an election. But in terms of what the organization needs to do, I think a lot of the things that we had already started on, trying to put systems together so that we don’t run around at the last moment when things are now happening.
What are you trying to impart to Colby students while you’re here?
The theme is that of incarceration and the possibility of where that incarceration is a violation of human rights. But, besides sharing my experience with them, I am also trying to make them understand Zimbabwe’s history, from colonialism to independence. And how the same leaders who are incarcerating some of us now, also suffered incarceration at the hands of the colonialists. Because I think that is very important. And also for them to understand that the issue of human rights, defense, and protection did not start in the twenty-first century in Zimbabwe. It goes way back into the liberation struggle, where our nationalists were demanding equality before the law and to be governed well by the colonizers—initially. They were not thinking in terms of majority rule. It was when the colonizers kept pushing them against the wall that they eventually decided, “No, we now are going to go for majority rule and universal suffrage in terms of one man, one vote.” So I think it is important that they also understand that. Make them understand that part of the world.