On February 15th human rights activist Gift Konjana, the Church of Christ's elderly Reverend Deve plus George Makoni of the Centre for Community Development in Zimbabwe, were arrested by police over a voter education meeting held in Chegutu. They were accused of holding an illegal meeting. Below is Konjana's first-hand account of his ordeal at the hands of Zimbabwe's law enforcement agents.
Part one: How it all started
It was on Wednesday, the 13th of February, when the local Member of Parliament (MP) called on me to avail myself for a public meeting which he had organized at a local church in Chegutu town. I told him I had no problem at all as my scheduled activities were not being disturbed at all.
A day later, the MP called again to ask me if I could chair the meeting. He went on to tell me that he wanted to report back on the constitutional process and that some members of a civic group called Center for Community Development of Zimbabwe (CCDZ) were also going to be present and were therefore to be some of the speakers on the panel. It all appeared to be OK, so I pledged to avail myself and help.
On the day in question, I managed to get to the local church and the MP and some other people were already there, chatting and laughing. When I got closer, we exchanged greetings and set about talking about the local gossip and all. I then asked my MP when we were going to start the meeting. He told me that the other guys from CCDZ were on their way and in time at all they would be around, I was told. So dutifully, I asked all the other guys present to get into the church so I could kick-start the program.
I started by acknowledging the presence of pastors, the MP, former Mayor of Chegutu and some councilors. I acknowledged all the people who had come despite their numerous other chores they had to attend to. I then asked the pastor to give devotion as was the program. After which the pastor prayed. By this time guys from CCDZ had arrived, so as dictated by the program, I asked one of them to give his presentation. It was on the constitution making process. He thanked the members of the public for their contributions during the consultation stages, then thanked parliament for funding the process, the principals for the relative peace and agreeing to present a final draft despite their own personal interests and those from their parties. He then announced the date for the referendum and the fact that people especially members of the public must choose whether to support or go against the vote during this period, emphasizing though that it was a better document than the one currently in use.
After that the MP stood up and told us that the draft was out, that he had also hoped to bring the copies but was not yet ready from the printers. He also confirmed the date of the referendum and thanked the residents for showing up at such a short notice. When he sat down, I stood up to close the meeting by thanking the people and all the visitors but before I asked the pastor to pray, I saw a police vehicle coming to an abrupt stop and some plain clothes police details literally flying from the speeding car. In no time they were in the church, by this time the pastor had started to lead a closing prayer. This did not go down well with the police, who had hoped to get some information of what we were saying and had said to the people.
Before the prayer had even ended, they come to where I was standing and one of them, a female policewoman, held my hands, maybe she thought I would run away during the prayer. After praying, she led me, Rev Bere and George Makoni from CCDZ to the police car. Like sheep we were led away and driven to the Pfupajena police cells.
However, I was very much surprised by the support I got from the youths and women there. Some of these guys wanted to go with me to police station, but only to be restrained by the police. By this time some of the youths had jumped into the police vehicle and these refused to leave.
They were about seven of them. I could hear the police-woman pleading with them to get down but they could not have any of that. At high speed the police van veered off towards the police station about a kilometre away. They started by asking me why I was involving myself in politics again, stating that Mashonaland West was better off without me in politics. They even told me to be like the other guys like the MP and other district officials who from time to time would tell the police their intentions.
All this time I was quiet. They asked me to respond, but instead of answering their question, I asked them why they had arrested the three of us only and not all the people present, including some high profile people. They got even angrier, skirting my question at the same time. By this time almost all the police details at this small police station had come to have a closer look at us especially me, as if I was a notoriously dangerous personality.
Some were saying, is this 'The Konjana' we hear about. While some even asked me why I do what I do. I did not answer all these questions at all. I could hear them saying I was troublesome and only wanted to cause trouble, so I should be dealt with once and for all. All this time I was wondering, what type of training and doctrine these police had got at college and whether my life was in professional people's hands or not.
After what felt like eternity, they asked me to get into the charge office and not to chat with my colleagues, before calling George, into the interrogation room. By this time they had asked all the youths to go home and to come back the next morning.
I was really humbled by these youths they were my real heroes, they made my day. The police spent some time with him (George) and then it was the pastor's turn. We had been arrested at around 3.45pm, and now it was around 7pm, and the guys had no clue what charges they would prefer against us.
I asked them if we could go home and come back the next day if they were not ready. They refused to let us go. It was only at around 9pm when they got instructions from Chinhoyi and Kadoma, when they started to prepare the docket.
During this time, I told them of what we were telling the people. I told them about the constitution and that we had also thanked the people of Zimbabwe for being brave during the outreach period, which sometimes tended to be violent. We had also thanked COPAC for finally delivering a draft that we were going to see and make a decision at the forthcoming referendum, although it was regrettable that COPAC had not met its own timelines.
We also thanked the principals for keeping the promise to deliver a draft although it was not totally a people's draft. We then announced the referendum date and what the people were supposed to do before the vote. We encouraged them to read the constitution and also to attend all public meetings which were going to be held once the document was out.
All this time the officers were taking notes, but I told them I was not going to tell them how I was going to plead as I was only going to do so in the presence of my lawyers. At around midnight, we were then taken to Chegutu Central Police Station, some 3km away and locked away in the police cells.
Early Saturday morning some detectives and CIO operatives came and took us to Kadoma Law and Order Section. There, we met our lawyer who then responded to the allegations, and kept us informed of everything. After that the detectives took us to police cells where we spent the weekend.
My colleague was taken away from the cells on Sunday. He literally spent the whole day outside with the detectives. When he came back very late in the afternoon, he told me of some interrogation and fingerprints being taken.
Early Monday morning some fingerprints were taken from us before they took us to Kadoma court where we were told to go Chegutu because the case had happened there. They did not have transport so we asked them if we could use a CCDZ kombi. They had little choice so we drove to Chegutu and got at lunch. We got into the court after lunch and we got bail of US$50 each.
Part two: Inside the cells
Life in a Zimbabwean prison cell is not at all fashionable nor is it enviable. This is the last person that any person would want to be. This is a place where you meet the criminally hardened, with crimes ranging from petty to serious. You also see and hear them boasting of their exploits, some of them bragging to do it again and again, if they get out there.
I remember when we were given some time to refresh and meet our relatives. They kept us in an enclosure of some security mesh wire. The police kept a vigil on us. They wanted to hear anything we said to our loved ones, while at the same time they insisted we had to eat while we talked. It was really a mission impossible. It meant that if you talked you would not eat; if you ate you would not talk. I remember in Kadoma, picking up an old small Gideons bible. At once I knew God wanted to talk to me and that I had to tell the people in the cell about God's love. Once in the cell, I opened Psalms 23. I shared the word with the inmates. They loved it. I kept telling them of God's love. I was amazed how they received it.
At once two guys stood up, they were all members of a bible believing church. They asked me to pray for them. After which they prayed for me and most in the cell. It was the most refreshing time. We sang some popular songs of praise, it was amazing how most joined and seemed to enjoy. At that I praised the Lord for his people and to forgive us for our sins. Before all this there was a lot of mistrust but soon after the prayers, we started to talk to each other.
We heard of the charges of some in the cell faced. Some faced murder, theft, fraud, rape, drugs and some were gold panners and gold buyers who had been nabbed at the numerous sites around Kadoma and Chegutu. Some in the cell had spent nearly a week and some had gone to court but had come back again because the police had applied for an extension of detention.
The stories we heard were like fiery stories from Mars. You just could not believe them. I heard from a man in his early 40s who had raped a minor, an old man of around 60 who had stolen a bicycle, a young boy of 13 who had stolen a laptop and some computer accessories from a shop. The list goes on and on. We were about 40 in a cell supposed to hold about half the number.
We were so crowded at both Chegutu and Kadoma police cells, we could hardly sleep. All the time we slept on our sides, if you wanted to change the position and wanted to use the other side you would wake up everyone on your side and everyone would also change, because you had to sleep facing the same direction if you were to be comfortable. This, despite the fact that we were sleeping on the hard, concrete slab. At first you may get this impression that the cell is still under construction and that one day the workmen would come to finish off by putting the floor. But when you look closer you would then see that this has been like this since the colonial times.
There has not been any effort at all to correct this abnormality, even though we are not going to be a colony again. The walls are dirty as if they have been using the cell as a kitchen. I could smell the soot and all the walls are blackened by what looks like smoke. The concrete ceiling is awash with names of some people who could have been held in these squalid conditions some several decades ago, maybe before independence. I saw some graffiti which read: 'Chikowore was here'. The name Chikowore reminds me of one post independence minister who died sometime in the late 90s or thereabouts who hailed from Kadoma. He had been an MP for the town since independence.
I thank God that I was in these places during this time of the year when the weather is relatively fine, otherwise I could have suffered as there are virtually no blankets. I had protested in Chegutu as there was only one old blanket which we were supposed to share. They had not responded quickly although, when I came in later I discovered they had supplied new blankets there. I was sleeping on the dirty floor at both Chegutu and Kadoma, without any blankets at all.
My arms are still sore as I was using them as my pillow throughout my ordeal. During the day we spent the time either sleeping or talking to each other and preaching. By the time we went to court, my whole body was aching. There was no time for exercise which I think is mandatory for someone in quarantine. For four days I hardly walked a kilometre.
In the cells on the right-hand side, there was what should have been a toilet pan. This actually added misery to our plight. Human waste and urine were overflowing onto the floor. There was no water to flush that away. If you wanted to then you would have to get permission as attempting to flush would bring all this down onto the floor, which would mean you would not b able to sleep or sit there at all.
I tried to talk to the officers but they would hear none of it. They told us that the cell had to be unpleasant so that you would not come back again. You could see the maggots moving threateningly towards you. But we had no choice as this was to be our room for the rest of our ordeal. The smell was too strong for one even to say something in there, but we got used and started to chart. That way we managed to tell out inmates the good word and the politics of the day. We knew that this was another chimurenga and we had to play our part.
In no time my nails grew and they had collected a lot of dirt and so there was need for me to cut them. I had asked my wife to bring a nail cutter so I could do that. When she wanted to give me the nail cutter they refused to let me get it. The police told me I was not supposed to handle anything that would hurt me. They told me some of the people in the cell were dangerous so they could not give me the nail cutter. I also wanted to brush my teeth but they could not allow me that as well.
There was no water to bath and no shower room for us. The situation in these two police cells is very very bad. Something really needs to be done urgently. Because we could not bath the police also refused us a change of clothes. They told us there was no need. I had asked my wife to take a picture of me in dirty clothes and uncombed hair and overgrown beard, but they would not have any of it. They even took her into the charge office for that and gave her a warning.
At Chegutu police cells they at least provide some food. The food though is below standard, I don't know whether they conform to the minimum standards set by the prison services themselves. I mean the minimum nutritional standards. The meal was sadza and boiled beans without cooking oil or tomatoes.
For most of the inmates, our coming in was a blessing as we had to share all we got from friends and relatives. The sadza and beans from the police was all the time left like that as we shared. In Kadoma, there was nothing served by the police. We met some inmates who had spent some three to four days without eating anything at all. Some were very weak and looked sickly because of hunger.
There was virtually nothing else to entertain us. We had no reading material like books or magazines. My wife brought me a newspaper to read but they would not permit that. There were no lights in all the cells at Chegutu and Kadoma. There were some lights outside which also helped to give us some light in the cells. They would be switched on and off from outside.
The light would penetrate through two of the four vents in the cells. You could hardly see each other as the rooms were dimly lit by this limited lighting. The vents which were supposed to help us breathe clean and fresh air were positioned at the apex of the room close to the concrete ceiling and so did very little to help.
I am sure you remember when I was given the US$50 fine at the Chegutu court. Earlier the police at Kadoma had been scanning my name throughout the Mashonaland West Province, for any other crime that I might have committed. They had told me then that they had got Kariba and Karoi confirming that I had some cases, however they had then said they had the cases cleared and so I had no case. They even went on to say Chinhoyi had cleared me as well. But on this day in question, when bail had been granted and paid, the police suddenly told me I had another case pending in Chinhoyi.
They told me they were not going to let me go home unless I talked to the investigation officer. They gave me a phone number. I phoned the policeman and told him of how tired and dirty I was and that I would come early morning, the next day. He agreed, I gave the phone to the detectives who were with me and they talked and seemed to agree.
However after their conversation, they asked me to accompany them to the nearest CID offices so they could tell their bosses in Kadoma what they intended to do with me. After what seemed like an hour and a half, they emerged from the offices. All this time I was talking to family and friends who had come to court to hear my case.
When I saw them coming out of the office I immediately approached them, I was shocked to hear that they had been told not to release me. They then took me to Chegutu holding cells where I was promised that policemen from Chinhoyi would come and take me there. When I was put back into the cells at Chegutu, I was surprised to hear from the police details there that they had supplied new blankets and had cleaned the cell since I had made a lot of noise about it the other day.
They even chided me by saying I had done that as if I knew I was coming back again. Before they locked me away I reminded them to phone Chinhoyi and tell them I was no longer coming on my own account. They promised they would do that. I slept once again on the hard concrete floor, but this time with some blankets. I was still in my dirty clothes for the seventh day now.
The next morning, I asked the officer in charge at Chegutu police station whether they had phoned, he rudely told me to keep quiet and not to teach him what to do. But I insisted that if the Chinhoyi guys were not coming then they had to release me. Later my friends and relatives came in with some food. I was happy to meet and see all them all. But deep inside me I felt uneasy. I definitely knew I was on a collision course with the police.
At noon when my friends and relatives came with some food, I said silently, 'this is the time.' I asked the policemen present when their guys from Chinhoyi would be coming. I even challenged them that had I been released yesterday, I would have finished the business in Chinhoyi.
I told them I was not going to eat until I got answers. I even told them that I had a better place where I could eat and drink and that I was not amused to be locked away like this. They tried to persuade me. My wife tried too. I didn't want to see the tears already forming in her eyes so I got back into the cell. Some of the police officers followed me into the cell, tried to persuade me but I refused to listen.
I then asked them to ask their boss to come and see me. The other cell mates were not very much happy either as they wanted the food which I normally shared with them. I told them, they could have it, but my wife would not have any of that, telling them that I had kids and so they could eat it instead.
When the officer in charge (OIC) heard that I wanted to see him, I think he phoned Chinhoyi first; probably he got an unpleasant answer or something. What I know is that he did not want to see me at all. After about some 30 or so minutes, I heard the prison gate being opened and then the heavy steel door, at that time I heard a voice calling my name. I got out and was quickly taken to the charge office. Still the officer in charge was avoiding me.
I was told by some police details that I had been released because they did not want me to die of hunger while in their custody. I asked them if the OIC had phoned Chinhoyi at all. I told them I was going to Chinhoyi on my own but if there was no case I would sue them for keeping me in prison. Finally the OIC came after the threat to sue. He apologized to me on behalf of the Chinhoyi police. He then asked me to go there any other time as it was not urgent, but I told him I would do that the next day as I felt humiliated, and wanted to clear my name. Before he left, he told me to see the OIC in Chinhoyi.
The next day, very early in the morning, I went to Chinhoyi with my wife. We got to the police station just before 8am. We went into the charge office and asked to see the OIC. The officer asked me why we wanted to see him. I told him everything and he led us away to the OIC Crime. He was a pleasant guy. He introduced himself as Assistant Commissioner Kanogwere (AssComm).
I told him my story and he seemed familiar to the story. He told me if I ever recall any case I had at their station. I told him I finished all the outstanding cases. He went out to the other office. I could hear him talking. He seemed to be talking to a female police detail. She kept on asking why the Chegutu police release me. After a lengthy discussion, they agreed to let me go but not before taking all my details. The AssComm came back, apologized for the inconvenience before taking my details.
I told him I was going to see what my lawyers would say about this. He gave me a telephone number to contact him on regarding this issue. I then left for the provincial party office, where I met party cadres who were also wondering what was happening and what all this meant.
We then left Chinhoyi for Chegutu. However I would not have made it had it not been for the prayers I received from family and friends from all corners of the country. People in Chiredzi near the Limpopo, south of the country, in Figtree near Plumtree, west of the country, in Nyazura near the magnificent mountains of Nyanga, east of the country, in Kariba along the Zambezi, north of the country, in the churches and homes.
Families and friends spared precious time to pray, some of them for the first time in their lives. Some brave enough even paid me visits at the cells, bringing food and warm regards from their friends who are also my friends. There were both black and white families all concerned.
The party was not to be outdone. Activists from both the civic and political movement all came in full support of a comrade. First on a Saturday when everybody was spending quality time with their loved ones, Mr Bhatasara from Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) came to represent us and then at Chegutu court Mr Bhamu, also from ZLHR, came and took over from where he had left. I did not deserve all this. But in the end it was God at work, like what one of my many valued friends wrote: 'What, then, shall I say to all these things? If God is with us, who can be against us?' Romans 8: 31. Thank you and God abundantly bless you all. You are truly the good neighbours.