THE journalist in me suddenly awoke when I saw about a dozen police officers racing after a couple of people in the Harare city centre on Wednesday.
Apparently, the cops were on an operation to arrest touts.
In the Zimbabwean context- something that is not anywhere in country’s legal documents- touts are those who solicit for commuter omnibus passengers in the city centre.
Armed with batons, the police officers were randomly beating up people in the streets.
With the swiftness of an eagle going for its prey, I grabbed my tablet and started filming the drama from what I considered to be a safe distance.
I had learnt my lessons about filming in Harare; nomatter how much press freedom one was guaranteed in the 2013 constitution, all that would not matter in the often trigger-happy angry cops who unleashed a baton stick or any physical engagement before investigating the circumstances.
I filmed, and as the camera rolled, truncheons were raining on people and others were just being grabbed from the pavements for merely standing and watching the scuffle; I had my scoop for the day.
But a few seconds into the recording, I felt a firm grip on my trousers’ belt from behind and a booming voice said: “Hey guys, pane arikutora video pano!” (Hey guys, someone is recording a video here!)
It was another police officer calling his colleagues and in the same style flies swarm towards anything smelly, about a dozen cops suddenly mobbed me like I was some heap of waste ready to be devoured — and devour me is exactly what they did.
Before I knew it, batons were all over me and any attempts to explain that I was just a journalist on duty were met with more claps and truncheons all over the body.
I fell on the pavement and immediately lost track of where my Press card and tablet were as police officers continued to beat me up and hurl insults at me and NewsDay “for writing negatively” about their operations.
For about five minutes, the nearly a dozen officers used what they could, from boots, open palms, batons and fists to bash me as I lay helplessly on the pavement.
By then I was beginning to feel light-headed that the beatings seemed to be less painful and their voices more faint.
After a while, I heard a voice – sounding faint as if it was far away — saying. “Mupinzei mumota (Get him into the truck)”
They shoved me into a Mazda truck and the impact of my hard fall onto the rigid, corrugated truck floor seemed to bring me back to full consciousness.
And here, my troubles were just beginning.
I was ordered to lie down on my stomach and more truncheons, slaps and boots rained on me.
I simply could not raise my hands anymore to block the punches.
All I could do was lie down and feel the throb of the veins.
As the truck started to move, they started chanting: “Tabata nyama! (We have caught prey!)”
Their anger had seemingly transformed to excitement as they narrated how they were now “in charge” of making sure I paid for all the police stories written in NewsDay.
At one point they referred to the First Lady Grace Mugabe’s attack on journalists last week, justifying why they could beat me up at will and get away with it.
In one of her addresses during her tour of the country, Grace, who is set to assume the Zanu PF Women’s League secretary post, mentioned NewsDay as she took a dig at journalists for “writing negative things about the First Family” alleging that they were being paid by Vice-President Joice Mujuru and the opposition MDC-T to tarnish her image.
Some of them referred to the recent arrest of Zimbabwe Mail photographer Angela Jimu by police and vowed to continue doing that to any journalist they caught in the streets filming or recording.
Even though my body was battered, their statements of hatred against the press emboldened me.
Meanwhile, the truck was going around picking up touts and traffic offenders under a current joint operation between police and Harare City Council to rid the city of touts.
Those picked up were treated the same way as me. They were shoved into the truck, ordered to lie down and get beaten by the now 10 officers for a while. One of the touts had his pair of trousers ripped into two during the beating.
Meanwhile, I tried to contact my office for support, but my small phone was seized and I was barred from communicating with anyone.
Fortunately, I had already sent an SMS to critical people, including my wife, digital editor John Mokwetsi, news editor Patrica Makova and group chief editor Vincent Kahiya, stating my predicament.
As the operation continued for what seemed like endless hours, more and more people were brutally hauled into the truck and bystanders who were witness to the beatings were also subjected to the brutality of the heavy-handed police.
As the truck drove to Harare Central Police Station, my mind started to think of alleged police torture camps, filthy cells and nights in detention.
After having read and covered stories of police brutality and torture before, my anxiety seemed to return, prevailing over that firmness.
At the station we were asked to hold hands as we went upstairs to the detention room.
My pleas to talk to the officer- in-charge and attempts to ask for medical attention as my whole body was in pain earned me a few more truncheons.
In the end I had no choice, but to tag along with the freshly picked up touts, up the stairs to the third floor, Room 238, where the operation is being run from.
Room 238 measures about three by three metres and in contrast to the other police facilities, the walls here were generally clean.
There were about a dozen more touts who had been arrested the previous day and spent the night in the holding cells and the whole room reeked of the smell of sweat.
We were made to squeeze onto the remaining space on the floor while our details were captured by a sergeant.
By this time, I was more infamous with the police officers who felt I was a face of defiance. Yet I became famous among the touts who thought I was being their voice by continually asking for human rights to be respected.
One tout asked for water and he was denied. When I insisted to the officers present to provide the water, they caved in despite issuing some threats.
The touts cheered.
Room 283 — for me — represented a place of sadness and despair, a place where human rights end at the door. I witnessed detained people being denied their basic rights; that is the right to lawyers, to making phone calls, among others.
The arrested touts were even denied a chance to give statements as the crime was simply supposed to be either “touting” or “misconduct”.
I was only allowed to make calls after a lawyer from the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) arrived to attend to my case.
Here, the arrested were showing each other their wounds and damaged property. Two had their smartphone screens shattered and another was left with a torn shirt.
I witnessed spouses coming to check on their loved ones. Some brought food and others money to pay admission of guilt fines.
Although the arrested were not allowed to speak to their visitors, there was a sense of emotion as the visitors could only say hello and pass the food.
One particular man got a visit from his heavily-pregnant wife who passed on the money to the officer.
When she asked the officer what they were going to do, the officer said they intended to take the touts to court instead of asking them to pay admission of guilt fine.
“We will just give him the money, in case we decide they pay fines,” he told the wife.
As she turned to look back and leave, I saw a teardrop on her cheek and her husband could not hold it and he also shed a tear.
Thankfully, ZLHR’s Harrison Nkomo, the AMH legal team and my editors reacted swiftly and I was released without a charge after four hours in the hands of brutality and repression.
The video in my tablet was deleted and I never recovered my Press card.
As I walked away from Harare Central Police Station, I felt a relief, but my heart skipped a beat each time I thought of the hundreds of people who are beaten up and clandestinely arrested every day, especially those who are caught up in the battle between police and touts.
And even as I felt the October breeze on my forehead while limping out of the police station, I felt a pang in my heart.
I had been released without a charge, but that could neither take away the pain in my body nor undo the unjustified assault on the profession of journalism.
I felt more resolute than ever before to write.