Bulawayo — Friends and colleagues of Zimbabwean human rights campaigner Paul Chizuze are losing hope of finding him alive. Some fear the prominent figure was abducted by the country's central government agents. One source says Chizuze became a target for state security because of his investigations into other disappeared activists and his wealth of information on the Matabeleland massacres.
Last month Zimbabwean media reported finding Chizuze's car in Beitbridge, a border town in southern Matabeleland. Inside were his old shoes, but no one to fill them. Local police confirmed finding the vehicle, though refused to give further details. One source described the issue as "too sensitive" for the police to handle.
Chizuze left his home in Bulawayo just after 8 pm on 8 February. The 58 year old was seen driving his official car, a Nissan Hardbody with registration number ACJ 3446.
Some family members who spoke to RNW say they fear Chizuze may have been abducted, hijacked or murdered on the night he disappeared. A relative who declined to be named said the family was despairing. "I now suspect he was murdered and we should all accept that we will never find him alive," he told RNW.
Zimbabwe education and culture minister David Coltart, a close friend and former colleague of the disappeared activist, said a search by several organizations and police has failed to locate him. He told a private radio station that his main worry was the lack of any leads, despite so much time spent searching for him.
"Too much information"
Coltart and Chizuze worked together on a number of human rights issues at the Bulawayo Legal Projects Centre. The minister said Chizuze had been working on issues that could have embarrassed authorities in the government, especially hardliners.
According to Coltart, the activist had too much information on Gukurahundi. The notorious Zimbabwean army unit massacred an estimated 20,000 people from the Ndebele-speaking minority of Matabeleland and Midlands provinces soon after the country's independence in 1980.
Chizuze's current colleagues say the missing man's work involved tracking activists in jail and offering them support. He also investigated the disappearance of Patrick Nabanyama, Minister Colart's election agent in 2000 and someone who worked closely with Coltart during the 1980s to help victims of the Matabeleland massacres. To this day, Nabanyama has not been found.
Insight from a colleague
The director of Masakhane Projects Trust, the human rights organization Chizuze worked for when he went missing, was almost in tears as he described efforts to locate their colleague."We have searched everywhere, including hospitals and morgues, but we have come up with nothing," Dumisani Mpofu told RNW. "We are losing hope of finding him alive because of what happened in the past when other disappeared human rights activists turned up dead."
When asked whether Chizuze might have skipped the border for self-exile, he said: "We doubt very much that he might have fled the country because there was no reason for him to do that. He was a person who never gave up the fight even when the going got tough." He added that if Chizuze had fled, he would have contacted family or workmates.
Mpofu says the disappearance of one of their own will not scare them away from exposing human rights abuses by the government, especially in Matabeleland, where people are still waiting for perpetrators of the 1980s killings to be brought to justice.
The search for Chizuze has taken other activists to the remote villages of Matabeleland. Reportedly no trace of him has turned up at police stations or morgues.
Exiles show optimism
While some Zimbabwe-based human activists may doubt they will find Chizuze, their exiled counterparts show optimism.
The Zimbabwe Solidarity Campaign (ZSC), based in Northern Ireland, recently staged protests in Belfast calling for global attention to the Chizuze case and to demand an end to other disappearances in Zimbabwe.
"We feel that we have to publicize the disappearance of Paul so that the world will know the plight of Zimbabweans," said ZSC participant Memory Chatambudza. "He is still missing and we want him found, dead or alive, so that his family can get answers on what happened."
Chatambudza says the international community appears to have forgotten the violence in Zimbabwe, yet abuses persist. With elections now around the corner, she expects violence to escalate.