On September 8, Zimbabwean union activist Dr Peter Magombeyi claimed he was receiving “death threats”. Six days later he disappeared. His last WhatsApp message said: “I have been kidnapped by 3 men.”
Magombeyi was found on Thursday night, 30km from the capital Harare.
He was alive and deeply traumatised.
Around 50 political opponents and unionists have been abducted in Zimbabwe this year. According to Amnesty International, they are victims of a “systematic and brutal crackdown on human rights” by the regime.
Hundreds of medics took to the streets this week to demand the authorities investigate Magombeyi’s disappearance.
“No Peter, no work,” chanted the crowds. They accused security forces of kidnapping their colleague for heading the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association (ZHDA).
The pressure paid off.
Magombeyi appeared “disoriented”, said a ZHDA member after he was found, adding that the 26-year old would be examined to determine whether he had been tortured.
Since Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa came to power in 2017, the regime has “resorted to the same brutal tactics” used by his predecessor Robert Mugabe to “clampdown on human rights”, said Amnesty in a statement last month.
Magombeyi had launched a strike earlier this month to demand their salaries be pegged to the US dollar in the face of spiralling living costs.
‘I live in the trenches’
Within a year, the value of their pay had fallen 15-fold due to hyperinflation and the collapse of the local currency.
“I live in the trenches,” Magombeyi told AFP during an interview before he went missing.
“I don’t sleep at home. I just pop up to get my clothes.”
But Magombeyi was snatched from his home in Harare.
His abduction was not an “isolated case”, said Human Rights Watch Southern Africa Director Dewa Mavhinga.
“Recent months have seen an alarming spike in abductions and torture of critics of the government and the political opposition.”
Mavhinga said the watchdog had “been able to confirm more than 50 cases of abductions” this year.
“So far, none of the perpetrators have been arrested,” he added.
In August, comedian and government critic Samantha Kureya was taken from her house and forced to drink sewage water.
She was found hours later in a state of shock.
Lashes of ‘sjamboks’
Zimbabwe human rights lawyer Doug Coltart told AFP the “modus operandi” was always the same.
Masked and armed individuals break into peoples’ homes, carry them away and subject them to torture – sometimes breaking their limbs in the process.
Obert Masaraure will never forget the night of June 5, when armed men snatched him from his bed in Harare around midnight.
“They took me to a bush in some isolated place,” said Masaraure, who heads Zimbabwe’s rural teachers’ union.
“They stripped me naked, they assaulted me heavily with rubber sjamboks (whips),” he told AFP, adding that he was then forced to roll in the mud.
“When I almost lost conciousness they left me and ran away.”
Masaraure had been abducted a first time in January and dumped at a police station, where he was charged for “subversion”.
“It demonstrates the state involvement,” said lawyer Coltart.
The government denies any involvement and points fingers at the opposition.
“This is a characteristic propaganda stunt by the opposition and its supporters,” said presidency spokesperson George Charamba.
Hours before Magombeyi was found, deputy information minister Energy Mutodi joked about the doctor being too drunk to find his own house.
“We hope Dr Peter Magombeyi will sober up & find his way home,” Mutodi tweeted on Thursday.
While most of the victims are eventually freed, some never make it back.
Blessing Toronga was an outspoken member of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition party.
He disappeared in January during nationwide demonstrations against a hefty hike in fuel prices.
The army was deployed to crack down on the protests, leaving at least 17 dead over several days, scores injured and hundreds arrested.
Toronga’s body was found in a morgue three months after he went missing.
Given most kidnappings only last a few hours, said Coltart, Magombeyi’s five days of captivity caused a great deal of worry among his peers.
“There is no space for dissent (in Zimbabwe),” said Amnesty, condemning the “witch-hunt against anyone who dared challenge his (Mnangagwa’s) government”.
Coltart told AFP the kidnappings and torture were “not a surprise” considering Mnangagwa’s past.
The president is accused of playing a major role in organising the execution of some 20 000 minority Ndeble people during the early 1980s, a dark event known as the Gukurahundi massacre.
The victims were considered political dissidents by former president Robert Mugabe, for whom Mnangagwa was security minister at the time.