Troops return to Zimbabwe's streets with a vengeance

23 January 2019, 21:48 | Updated: 24 January 2019, 07:50

A week of protest, violence and national trauma in Zimbabwe began last week in the country's second largest city, Bulawayo.

It was here on the morning of 14 January that protesters took to the streets after President Emerson Mnangagwa's administration raised fuel prices by 150%.

Seized with fury, demonstrators blocked roads and occupied neighbourhoods - and their protests would lead to city-wide looting and rioting.

Shops and business in large swathes of the city were destroyed or stripped bare. I asked the owner of one supermarket in an area called Nkeita what had happened to the police.

"They came late, they were late. Everything was gone when they got here," he replied.

Business owners told me that they were abandoned by the police and the army for the first three or four days.

Government critics, like lawyer and former opposition MP David Coltart, think that the authorities decided to hand over this independent-minded community to thugs and criminal elements.

"I have seen the destruction of food outlets on an industrial scale.

"Having represented the people of Bulawayo for many years, I cannot believe the people themselves would have done this because they would have harmed themselves.

"Some 80% of food outlets in working class areas were destroyed. The capacity of these businesses to open again was effectively ended."

Zimbabwe's president promised to prosecute members of the army or the police who were found guilty of misconduct.

Yet it is members of the public in Bulawayo who are now being rounded up and arrested as the authorities re-assert their control in the city.

Lawyers told us 500 people have been detained in the past few days. The city's prisons, "are packed like sardines," said one.

We found one woman called Noxolo Maphosa, outside the city's stately magistrate's court, carrying a toothbrush and some basic suppliers for her brother, Josephat.

Josephat Ngulube ran as a candidate in the last election but he was arrested over the weekend for trying to organise a protest.

"Now I don't know what is going to happen to him," said Ms Maphosa.

"I am just waiting for them to tell us what is going to happen but I don't have hope. I thought we would get a trial date today but they keep on postponing. I am losing hope."

The police and the members of the military are back on the streets and they are making their presence felt.

I heard and saw evidence of systematic raids and beatings carried out in the city's suburbs.

Residents in an area called Marbutweni told us that troops turned up after 8pm on Tuesday and went door to door, administering beatings to men over the age of 14.

A resident called Clive showed us a series of blue marks and bruises covering his back, then turned around to address us in a quivering voice.

"I met those guys. 'Where you coming from?' (they said).

"I said 'I am going home. It is after dark'.

"(They said) lie down and then nine guys were hitting me. Baton sticks and everything. Come on, is this Zimbabwe?"

We were given more testimony from a man called John, whose face was badly swollen.

"I was asking, 'what did I do wrong?' But they were continuously beating me and I don't know what to do now because I am scared," he told us.

These are arbitrary and unjustified attacks in a country led by a man - Emerson Mnangagwa - who is trying to sell it as a modern democracy. The people of Bulawayo are unlikely to forgive.