Jan Raath, a correspondent for the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) and the British daily The Times, Angus Shaw, a correspondent with the US news agency The Associated Press (AP), and Brian Latham, a reporter for the US press group Bloomberg News, decided to flee Zimbabwe after being harassed for several days by the police.
"All I did was drop everything and run"
With my heart in my mouth, I watched the immigration officer’s face for any sign of reaction. If there was an alert put out for me at Zimbabwe’s border posts, this was point at which I would be stopped. Nothing. He briefly looked at my passport, banged a stamp in it, and handed it back with a smile.
Ten minutes later, I was over the border and in Botswana, beyond the reach of President Robert Mugabe’s secret police. In the space of 24 hours, I had left behind 30 years of living as a journalist in Zimbabwe and, at 11.30 a.m. on Thursday, I entered a new one with a pickup truck and three bags of belongings.
During the last five years of Mugabe’s onslaught against any voices of dissent in Zimbabwe, the shrinking group of independent journalists occasionally would talk about plans for emergency evacuation in case the government decided to arrest us. When it happened, I was nowhere near ready for it. Not even my illegal two-month expulsion from Zimbabwe in 1986 over the headlines, which I did not write, to one of my stories in The Times of London did not prepare me.
I reacted with panic, fear and acute anxiety. All I did was drop everything and run.
It began at 2.30 a.m. on Monday with violent banging on the locked gate to my home in Harare. The security guard said two men in a foreign-registered car were demanding to be let in. Thieves don’t usually announce themselves. We switched on the alarm, and they drove off. At about 10 a.m. that day, two plainclothes policemen arrived at the office in a shabby apartment block in central Harare that I shared with Angus Shaw of Associated Press and Brian Latham of Bloomberg News.
They said they were investigating reports that we were involved in "spying". Our lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, came soon after and burst out laughing when one of them told her the reason for their visit. "My friend," she told him, "if you are looking for spies, you must go to ZANU(PF) (Mugabe’s ruling party) headquarters."
The policeman hooted with laughter, and they left. Five senior figures in the ZANU(PF) establishment have been in detention for over two months on charges under the Official Secrets Act.
An hour passed. Three more officers from the "Law and Order section of the CID arrived. They refused to identify themselves and accused us of working as journalists illegally. New laws passed in January make it a crime to be a journalist without certified approval from the state-controlled Media Commission, and carries a penalty of up to two years in prison. Mtetwa explained that for the last three years, we had applied to the commission for accreditation, but the body simply had sat on our applications. The media law provided that until the commission officially denied applications, we could not be stopped from working, she said. The policemen took no interest.
Then they brought in a police computer hacker. She examined the office’s rudimentary switchboard (that the three policemen believed was secret monitoring equipment) and the computer system, and pronounced that the large satellite dish in the yard outside which receives the AP news service, was probably illegal.
None of us was in the office on Tuesday when 10 officers them came in without a search warrant and conducted a minute examination of the computers there, our desks and files.
The telephone rang and was answered by the tall young hacker. "This is the new receptionist," she said. Mtetwa watched as she hacked into the computer hard drive and shouted "we’ve got him" when she claimed to have found copies of foreign currency transfers. None of this would stand up in court, Mtetwa said later. All of us have worked extensively outside Zimbabwe and are fully justified in maintaining foreign currency accounts outside Zimbabwe.
But what the law says is of little consequence in Zimbabwe. In searches and half-hearted interrogations over about nine hours in three days, 15 policemen, had, at best, no more than the slim possibility of administrative infringements by any of us. However, it was evident they were looking for something to hold against us. It was considered important enough for the the national head of the "law and order" section to supervise the operation.
Parliamentary elections are due on March 31 and in the last three weeks, the government had been cracking down on the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, human rights groups and other journalists. We half expected something like this.
On Wednesday Mtetwa telephoned. "I am told they intend to pick you up," she said. Her sources had said police were planning to use laws that allow them to hold suspects for 28 days without bringing them to court. The detention period can be extended indefinitely.
A senior official of a human rights organisation was asked why the government didn’t use its powers under the media law and silence us simply by denying us accreditation. "You don’t understand," he said. "You defied them for a long time. They want to punish you first, and then they will kick you out."
Mtetwa’s telephone call made up my mind. I parked my vehicle at a friend’s home, and borrowed his car. The police who came to our office knew our vehicle registration numbers by rote. For the last three days I had been talking in code over the telephone and using other telephones to avoid being bugged. I slept away from home.
I went on a series of hurried errands, collecting a visa from the South African embassy and to the small cottage I rent, and packed a few necessities in 15 minutes.
I couldn’t find Samson, my cat, to say goodbye. I told no one except two of my closest friends. I drove 550 kilometres through the night to Plumtree on Zimbabwe’s western border with Botswana. Later, in Francistown - the Botswana city 80 kilometres from the border post, I telephoned my girlfriend, Sarah, and told her where I was. She burst into sobs of relief.