The latest news from (and for) Zimbabwe (Johann Hari)
February 8, 2006
London - city of refugees
And they're doing more than yearning to breathe free
In a poky, smoky office in a tower block in Borehamwood – the greyest outpost of North London suburbia – a group of seven refugees are keeping the last scrap of hope for Zimbabwe alive. From these tiny rooms, they broadcast Radio SW Africa – the first and only opposition radio station beamed into Robert Mugabe’s abattoir-state. As I watch them broadcast news about his smash-and-grab policies and taking calls from terrified, terrorised people living (and dying) at Mugabe’s whim, it is odd to realise that millions of people 6000 miles away are adjusting their radio transmitters, listening to this, the only voice of sanity they have left.
At first glance, this office could house a middle-ranking paper firm in Slough – but the longer you stay, the more the unmistakable air of torture and death pervades the chatter. Lance Guama, their 31 year-old lead reporter, tells me how he ended up in London, a city that has housed refugees dreaming of revolution from Marx to Mbeki. “Until 2003, I would file stories for Radio SW Africa in secret from locations around Zimbabwe. I believed somebody had to document what was happening. In a country that once had a better literacy rate than Britain, the schools are shut. Right now, Harare Hospital hasn’t performed any operations for two months. There’s no medicine. There’s no supplies. We are trying to find out what’s happening to all the sick people. Where are they going? There’s no caesareans. Are mothers just dying in their homes? There’s open sewage in Harare – so there’s cholera, there’s dyssentry. Are people dying of that? There’s no-one to see it, there’s no-one to report it. It’s death below the radar, and I believed that was wrong.”
But it was impossible to tell the truth under Mugabe. Many people now believe he is suffering from a paranoid form of dementia, making Zimbabwe the world’s first Alzheimocracy – and Lance paid for it. He looks out over Borehamwood’s dreary skyline and explains that he had been one of Mugabe’s children – the generation reared to see him as a quasi-God. Like a cult member who has only recently been reprogrammed, he explains the process of disillusionment in slow, halting bursts – how he witnessed racist massacres in Matabeleland as a teenager, and, flatly, finally, how three years ago he was approached by four of Mugabe’s henchmen just fifteen fifteen minutes after making a secret broadcast about vote-rigging. Before he could speak, his face was smashed with a brick, and he was stabbed repeatedly in the gut with a screwdriver. Lance left Zimbabwe that week, and now fears he will never return. “Will I ever see my mother or father again?” he asks himself, before quickly changing the subject.
Radio SW Africa was founded by Gerry Jackson, a smart-suited white woman who had been one of Harare’s most popular radio DJs – until she crossed Mugabe’s unspoken line. On the day of the first food riots in 1997 – when the starving population began to rebel – Gerry did something you just don’t do in Zimbabwe: she opened the phone-lines to ordinary people, so they could explain what was happening. Until that moment, the radio had been a means for the government to talk to the people, not the other way round. Panicked, pitiful people called in, appealing for help – and Gerry was kicked off air for “insubordination.” She tried to set up an independent radio station, only for it to be smashed up by goons on its sixth day on air. It must have been terrifying to open those phone-lines, I say to her. “Yes, but it was fabulous!” she says. “I knew I was doing the right thing. I refused to be afraid.” Even when the goons came? “I was not afraid. I was doing the right thing.”
Everybody at the station still has friends trapped in Zimbabwe. Gerry explains, “Everyone is just in survival mode. When you’ve got 1000 percent inflation, 80 percent unemployment and people dying quietly in their homes, you just knuckle down to survive. You don’t think about the bigger picture.” Lance fears that since the opposition Movement for Democratic Change collapsed into squabbling fragments, “There is even less hope now than there was five years ago. The picture is very bleak.” When they utter the exiles’ magic word – home – it is with melancholic longing. The Zimbabwean minister of information recently declared in parliament that all seven of Radio SW Africa’s staff are welcome back home – but only in the country’s prisons.
This city is scattered with Radio SW Africas. The main Saudi Arabian opposition station broadcasts from a semi in Fulham. The Falun Gong dissidents broadcast to China from Packham. The Statue of Liberty describes New York City as a haven for the “huddled masses yearning to breath free,” but London goes one better: it is where the world’s huddled masses try to make the world free, one radio station at a time. Yes still the British right savages asylum seekers, claiming people like Gerry and Lance come here for the lavish £40-a-week given to asylum seekers. Do the refugee-bashers of the right really want to pack these freedom fighters on the first boat back to their tyrants?