Lice and boiled beans: 21 days of imprisonment in Zimbabwe

By Jeffrey Moyo

The detectives from the Anti-Terrorism Unit hammered at my gate on the morning of May 26. They demanded to know how I had helped two foreign journalists enter the country.

“Don’t waste our time,” one of the three policemen told me menacingly as they ordered me to accompany them to Harare’s Central Police Station. “Don’t act funny. Let’s go. Let’s go now.”

I asked for permission to call a lawyer, the renowned human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa. Fortunately she answered right away. She asked me to describe the detectives, and immediately knew one of them from past experience.

The detectives ordered me into their car – a gleaming new white Mercedes-Benz without any police markings. I refused to enter the vehicle, worried they might take me to an unknown location, as Zimbabwe’s police have sometimes done with political activists who ended up tortured in secret detention sites.

I told the detectives that I would drive my own car to the police station. Two of the detectives jumped into my car. As I drove, they asked me why I was working for foreign media. “Why did you not choose to work for The Herald?” they asked me, naming a state-controlled newspaper that churns out government propaganda.

Their main accusation seemed to be that I had gone to the officially independent Zimbabwe Media Commission to get accreditation for two visiting New York Times journalists without going to the powerful Ministry of Information, which has increasingly been asserting its right to decide on foreign media visits.

At the police station, the detectives ordered me to switch off my phone. Then they shoved me into an office marked “Anti-Terrorism Unit.” This is the unit that usually deals with political cases – of which there are a growing number in Zimbabwe these days, even after the demise of former president Robert Mugabe.

My lawyers, Ms. Mtetwa and Doug Coltart, arrived at the police station and met me. Then I was placed in an overnight cell with five other suspects.

The conditions were horrible. The air had a stench of urine. Despite the winter chill, I was forced to remove my shoes, socks, shirt and sweater, leaving only my jacket and trousers.

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That night I slept on the concrete floor, with no blankets. The police claimed all the blankets had already been taken by other detainees. I had to press myself closer and closer to the other prisoners for warmth throughout the night.

The following morning, a crowd was waiting for me at Harare Magistrate’s Court. Journalists had been tweeting about the case, alerting the world.

But instead of taking me to the Harare court, the detectives marched into my cell and told me that they were sending me to the city of Bulawayo, more than 400 kilometres away.

The official reason was because the New York Times journalists had entered the country at Bulawayo’s airport. It was a cruel punishment for me, separating me from my family in Harare. But I heard one of the policemen bragging to a colleague that it would be good for the police, boosting their daily allowances.

My wife, Purity, was among those who were waiting in court in Harare. She was shocked to learn that I was being taken to a faraway city.

My co-accused was Thabang Manhika, a staffer at the media commission who had processed the accreditations for my colleagues. After an eight-hour road journey, we were pushed into a police cell in Bulawayo with 16 other people. We slept on the concrete floor, choking from the stench of waste from the toilet. No blankets were provided to us, and it was so crowded that we could not turn over.

I shouted through a small opening in the cell door, asking to be allowed to call my lawyer. I wanted to explain the appalling conditions. The police refused.

I was kept in custody for a bail hearing on May 31, where Magistrate Rachel Mukanga refused to grant bail. She accepted the claims from prosecutors that I was a “threat to national security” and had undermined the country’s sovereignty by helping foreign journalists to interview Zimbabweans without the state’s permission.

My new home was Bulawayo Central Prison, a 124-year-old stone structure with tall walls. I was assigned a prison number: 1293/21. At roll call, the guards would call out our names, and each of us was required to respond with our prison number.

There were 26 of us in Cell 36. The door was heavy ancient hardwood. There were two tiny windows, each covered with thick rusty wire nets. Again there was the overpowering smell of urine and excrement. Again there were not enough blankets. A fellow inmate offered me one, but it was torn, shabby and lice-ridden. I preferred to sleep on the concrete floor, but the lice found me anyway.

After three freezing nights, my wife – who had made the difficult journey from Harare – was able to arrange a blanket for me.

Later she told me that my eight-year-old son, Jayden, had worried about my absence. She told him that I was on a work trip, but he was unconvinced. He had seen my work equipment on my desk. “Dad doesn’t leave his laptop when he is working, he doesn’t leave his charger and his work gadgets,” he told her.

In prison, I was completely shut off from the outside world, aside from the occasional bits of news that the guards would pass on to me.

Breakfast every day was plain porridge without sugar or salt. Lunch at 11:30 a.m. was corn meal and boiled dried spinach. Supper was at 3 p.m.: boiled beans without salt or cooking oil. Soon after supper, we would be ordered to sleep.

We were allowed outside near our cells for a few hours in the daytime. As soon as the cell doors opened, we took advantage of the sunshine to search for lice on our clothes and blankets and even our underwear, picking at them and crushing the bloodied creatures with our thumbs.

The prison’s chief officer addressed the prisoners one morning. He begged us to be patient. “We have no adequate blankets, and our diet is not up to scratch, but we know this is because of the economy in our country, which is not performing well at the moment,” he told us. “When things get better, we hope everything shall improve.”

On some days, I felt hopeless. When I hadn’t heard from my lawyers for a while, I worried that they had given up on my case.

I felt angry at the Zimbabwean regime for throwing me in prison while better-connected people were escaping any punishment for corruption and other crimes. And I was furious when I learned that my wife and son were illegally prohibited from seeing me, even after they had travelled the long distance from Harare to visit the prison.

My wife and son were ordered to communicate with me in brief letters. That ate me up. I worried about how they were faring. I felt like a dead man to them.

The guards often did impromptu roll calls, to make sure nobody had escaped. They ordered us to line up and squat on the ground as they counted us, before herding us back into our cells.

Some of the guards were kind. One of them allowed me to jog in a 21-metre stretch near my cell. But then another guard prohibited it. “Why are you running in jail?” he told me. “You want to run away? We don’t allow prisoners to run here.”

When a medical officer tested me for COVID-19, I made the mistake of shifting in my chair. She slapped me angrily, very hard.

Some of the guards fuelled my anxiety, telling me that I would never get bail because my lawyers were “anti-government.” They had their own suggestions. “Give us money and we will arrange with the prosecutor and magistrates to release you,” they said.

Even as I desperately wanted to be free, I knew that it was futile to try to grease the hands of the judiciary. I knew my political case was beyond the capabilities of the guards.

As the days passed, we inmates tried to keep our spirits up. One inmate amused everyone with his impressions of Zimbabwe’s President, Emmerson Mnangagwa. “You see, my government is very kind, providing you with more dried spinach without salt so you have good health,” he would tell me as the inmates chortled.

At times, some of us would gather into a small group and start singing in the Ndebele vocal music known as mbube, which became a great source of entertainment for us.

On June 14, my wife sent me a message. My lawyers had phoned her to say that the Bulawayo High Court was granting bail to me. But they said I would not be immediately released, because the paperwork was still being processed.

I stayed another night in jail, keeping the news to myself, afraid to get too excited. And the next day there was more frustration. News filtered to me from outside that the court officials were claiming their printer had malfunctioned, preventing them from printing the order for my release.

Prison guards gave me more bad news. They told me that they would transfer me to Khami Prison, a maximum-security jail, more than 20 kilometres outside Bulawayo, and I would be released there. My lawyers fought the order, and it was eventually cancelled.

My wife waited outside the Bulawayo prison, hoping I would be released. But even then, after prison officials finally arrived with court papers for my release, I was still not freed. They told me to stay in prison for yet another night, claiming that there was a clerical error in a detail of my release warrant.

The next day, prison officials went to court to get the error corrected – if in fact there had been any error.

I walked out of Bulawayo Prison around 10:30 am on June 16, tasting my first freedom after 21 days of incarceration. I had lost seven kilograms in prison. When I saw my wife and son, I couldn’t hold back my tears.

Editor’s note: Bail was finally granted to 36-year-old freelance journalist Jeffrey Moyo after a judge admitted there was no evidence that he was a threat to public peace and security. His lawyers have applied to quash the remaining charges against him. According to the Media Institute of Southern Africa, a total of 52 Zimbabwean journalists were arrested, detained, assaulted or injured last year, compared with 28 in the previous year.