Helpless in the Dust
Chapter 17 (Excerpt)
Two days after the election, at around the time that Mugabe was being sworn back into power as President, his twenty-eighth year in office, the radio sprang to life. Laura and the children and I had had Sunday lunch at home with Mike and Angela, who'd just left.
"Ben! Ben! Ben! This is Bruce."
"Reading you," I replied, leaning over to push in the red button.
"I've just heard that Frank Trott has had his ribs broken and a gun put to his head by Gilbert Moyo, over on Twyford farm. Some of the workers over there heard the gang say they were coming over to ‘Campbell's'. They're heavily armed. Over."
"OK, copy that. I'll go and warn Mike and Angela now, over." I knew that their radio was on the blink, so I tried their cell phone, but couldn't get through.
We knew that the looting and violence was being organized against us. A small group of nuns had come to the farm a few days earlier, under the guise of buying seed potatoes, to warn us. They had overheard a conversation that indicated that the Minister of State for Policy Implementation, Webster Shamu, was behind it. We took the information seriously and had previously written to the Commissioner of Police asking for protection.
As I drove around the corner to Mike and Angela's house, I was greeted by two gun men pointing guns straight at my head. A group of thugs had arrived. One of the men holding a gun was wearing a bright shirt with Robert Mugabe's face emblazoned on it. It was Gilbert Moyo.
I ducked down to avoid the bullets and jammed on the brakes, then thrust my truck into reverse. I managed to back around the bend, then, shoving the gear lever forward into first, wheeled around back out the way I came in. I was gaining speed when a large rock smashed through the side window, hitting me on the right-hand side of my head. It was a piece of granite and it broke in half on impact. I went down, dazed, and smashed into a tree, stalling the car.
My head was pouring with blood and I was covered in broken glass. I reached for the keys to restart the truck, but someone grabbed them away from me. Several men leaned into the truck and dragged me out. I couldn't do anything. They were viciously strong, determined, and well trained in violence. They didn't say anything or ask me anything. I was surprised by the strength of their violent attack. I felt like a rag doll in their hands.
My shoes and jersey were ripped off and my shirt was torn open. I was sad about the jersey. It was very warm and had been a gift from my grandmother. Immediately, without any questions, the blows rained down; heavy, vicious blows from the thugs' rifle butts. I tried to protect my head as best I could with my hands. Something sharp was thrust into my right arm near the elbow. Someone kept hitting my back very hard.
After being beaten for some time, I was tied up with a strong green nylon rope they took from my car. I was already very sore all over and my right eye was so swollen that I couldn't see out of it. I was dragged along the driveway, through the dust, until I could make out two shapes lying under the bauhinia trees outside the garage. Mike and Angela.
Mike's head was discoloured and misshapen from being beaten with rifle butts. Blood was soaking into the dust where he lay, coagulating into dark, crusty patches. He was groaning and barely conscious. Angela's head was visibly bruised and she had red marks on her face where she'd been beaten with sticks. Her left arm was badly broken.
None of us could do anything. We just lay there, helpless in the dust, lapsing in and out of consciousness, at the mercy of Mugabe's thugs. I heard lots of shooting and I could see them carrying loot out of Mike and Angela's house and piling it into their vehicles.
I knew that one of the vehicles that Moyo was using had belonged to Kobus Joubert. The DISPOL (police officer commanding the district) had been out to his farm, about ten kilometres away, while Moyo was looting and killing some of his animals. Although she had stopped him from looting further, she had allowed him to take Kobus's vehicle. More recently Kobus, who was still on his farm, was shot dead in his bed one night.
I learned later what had happened to Mike and Angela. After having Sunday lunch with us, they'd gone to find a calf that had been separated from its mother. They'd managed to catch it and had got it on the back of the Land Cruiser. Mike wasn't happy with the look of its mother's teats, so Angela was just driving off with some milk in a bottle to feed the calf when Moyo and his gang had torn up the driveway in a lightning attack.
Jonah Zindoga, the squatter from the neighbouring farm who had been poaching our game and had beaten up Mike six months earlier, breaking several of his ribs, had been bicycling up and down the road. He was obviously keeping a look-out. His brother, Simberashe, was one of the leaders of Moyo's gang.
The gang arrived just as Mike was trying to call Bruce on his cell. When he heard the vehicles, Mike came out to see who it was. He was attacked immediately. They grabbed him and started beating him brutally with sticks and rifle butts.
Angela, who was in the Land Cruiser, saw what was happening and leaped out, running straight toward the thugs, shouting, "Stop!" They had about fourteen guns between them at that stage but Angela charged them single-handedly, with no weapon herself.
They grabbed her violently, breaking her left arm in several places and beating her with sticks. They tore big chunks of her hair out and beat the bare patches on her scalp. One of the thugs urinated on her head. Then they tied her to Mike with a thick blue nylon rope, which they took from the workshop.
Just after I'd left the house, Kelly, one of Mike and Angela's dogs, had arrived, panting and in distress. Kelly had never come to our house of her own accord before and Laura immediately realized that she'd come to ask for help. So she called Bruce. Bruce arrived on the main road while we were all lying tied up and injured on the driveway. He realized that something was dramatically wrong when he saw my vehicle skewed across the driveway with all its wheels shot out.
Bruce didn't know what to do — he was all by himself. He parked on the driveway and came into the garden on foot to try to assess whether or not we were still alive. He kept the phone line to Laura open. "Shall I shoot into the air?" he asked her.
"Yes!" she said. He fired some shots into the garden and this panicked the thugs, who fired volleys of shots back. I believe they thought that he had several people with him. Bruce retreated to his car to try to make some phone calls and get the police to do something.
The gang finished taking all the weapons and valuables from Mike's safe, then picked up Mike and me and dumped us on the floor of Mike's station wagon. Angela was put on the back seat, flanked by two men with rifles sticking out of the windows. They drove out, straight past Bruce's vehicle, as though they didn't see it. Bruce was lying concealed in the grass a few metres away. They eventually saw him and started running towards him. He fired some shots in the air and with that all hell broke loose. He got into his car while they fired several volleys of shots at him but he managed to drive past Mike and Angela's house. He looped round back to our house where Laura and the children were. Grace, who was soon to become Bruce's fiancée, had arrived there too with Megan, Bruce's daughter. Bruce advised them not to go onto the main road where the shooting was still going on. They must get out through the northern boundary.
Meanwhile Mike, Angela, and I were taken to the Bronkhorsts' farm just down the road. All I could see from where I was lying were telegraph poles and the tops of trees. I desperately tried to see where they were taking us but it was impossible to really know.
It was painful bumping along the rough roads. My head was bouncing on the floor and I couldn't do anything about it because I was tied up. Mike and I were like two bags of maize bouncing around as the truck careered along at high speed. I didn't know it then, but I had a twelve-centimetre skull fracture as well as broken ribs. Mike's injuries were worse, though, and all I could hear from him was constant groaning.
Bruce had come back out onto the main road to try to tail us. Our captors started chasing him, travelling at speeds up to 150 kilometres an hour, Bruce said later. The thugs had more than twenty guns between them, and they kept firing them out of the windows as they screamed along, peppering Bruce's vehicle with bullet holes. They even shot at passing traffic.
At one point they set off down the old strip road near Stockdale farm. Bruce stopped to try to make some phone calls. He was on the phone to Bruce Rogers, who was telling him to watch out for an ambush, when a bullet whistled through his open side window, missing his head by inches. A second bullet was deflected off the perspex. The gang had stopped around the corner and had come back on foot with their rifles. Bruce drove off.
A number of people from the community went to the police station to try to get help, informing them that we'd been beaten and abducted and that Mike and Angela's house had been looted. Even though the election was now over, the police didn't respond. We even drove past a police vehicle, which was crawling along the road in the opposite direction. The guns were bristling out of the windows of our vehicle but the police did nothing. It's a quiet stretch of road with no more than five or ten cars an hour. It was obvious that the police were monitoring and directing the whole show.
Laura and the children heard the shooting and after Bruce told them to get out of our house, she loaded the dogs and a few possessions into the Ford Laser while Grace drove her car with the children in it. The Laser, at over twenty years old, is low to the ground. It was never designed for dirt tracks in the bush, but it was evident from all the shooting that Laura had to go out through the bush on the northern boundary rather than risk being shot at on the main road.
Megan started crying.
"You mustn't cry, you must pray," Grace told her. The children prayed and Megs stopped crying.
When they got to the northern fence, neither Grace nor Laura had wire cutters. It's a tall game fence that Bruce had put up to try to protect the wildlife before it was all poached away. Laura said a prayer, and out of the bush walked a man with a dog. "The man had a lovely face," she told me later, "and the dog looked healthy and well fed." This was very unusual in a land where even the people are hungry. Laura had never seen the man before, and has never seen him or his dog since.
Laura briefly explained the situation to him. Without a word he pulled some wire cutters out of his back pocket and walked over to the fence. He cut through it and opened it out. As she and Grace drove through he told them which tracks to take. They got to the police station without further incident.
At the police station she explained the situation. "My brother is being shot at. My parents and husband have been badly beaten and they've been abducted." One of the policewomen started laughing at her. Laura made to go around the counter and give the women a slap but she was restrained by some of the other people in the community who were there on our behalf.
This excerpt from Ben Freeth's book Mugabe and the White African appears with the permission of Lion Hudson. Distributed in the U.S. by Trafalgar Square Publishing from IPG.