HARARE — Before the family of Kelvin Tinashe Choto knew he had been killed last week, social media in the country was circulating a photo of his battered body lying on the reception counter of a local police station where it had been left by angry protesters.
The 22-year-old was shot in the head, one of at least a dozen people killed in a violent crackdown by security forces on protests against a dramatic increase in fuel prices. Dozens of Zimbabweans were shot. Others say they have been hunted down in their homes at night, with soldiers and masked people in plainclothes dragging them away, severely beating them and leaving them for dead. Some are activists and labour leaders.
Others, like Choto, have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. A captain at a small soccer club in Chitungwiza, a dormitory town south-east of Harare, he had been planning to travel to neighbouring South Africa this week to look for better-paying teams.
“He was our future,” said his father, Julius Choto, as the family buried him on Saturday.
Teammates chanted the team’s war cry, handed the family his jersey and carried his coffin.
“He was disciplined, respectable and non-violent. All he cared for was his football. He was a very good footballer,” the father said.
He said his son had been watching the protests from a soccer field, “some meters away from the action,” on Tuesday when he was gunned down.
“Maybe they thought he was an (opposition) activist since he was wearing a red Manchester United jersey,” his father said.
The family only discovered his body the following morning at a local mortuary.
“I have been robbed,” Julius said, crying. “He was my only son and his future was bright. I have been robbed by the State.”
Such accounts have quickly undermined the faith of many Zimbabweans in the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was briefly cheered when he took over after the ouster of long-time, repressive leader Robert Mugabe in late 2017. Since then, the country’s already staggering economy has weakened even more.
Growing frustration over rising inflation, a severe currency crisis and fuel lines that stretch for miles finally snapped after Mnangagwa announced a week ago that fuel prices would more than double, making gasoline in Zimbabwe the most expensive in the world.
Civic leaders called for Zimbabweans to stay at home for three days in protest last week. Other people took to the streets. Some looted, in desperation or anger. The military was called in, and with Mnangagwa on an extended overseas trip, the hard-line former military commander and Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga was left in charge. A crackdown began.
In what critics have called an attempt to cover up abuses, the government in the past few days has imposed internet shutdowns across the country, ordering telecoms service providers to block popular social media applications.
“The internet was a tool that was used to coordinate the violence,” presidential spokesman George Charamba asserted on State television Saturday night, referring to protesters.
The Internet shutdowns have given security forces cover to commit violations “away from the glare of the international community,” said Dewa Mavhinga, southern Africa director for Human Rights Watch. The reports of abuses come as Mnangagwa prepares to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, appealing for foreign investment in a country he repeatedly says is “open for business.” At one hospital in Harare alone, the waiting room and corridors were packed with victims.
“They came at the middle of the night, kicking doors and throwing tear gas to force us out. Once they had rounded all up men in the area, they assaulted us using motorbike chains,” one man said.
Another man with burnt hands said he and others had been forced to put out burning tyres with their bare hands. They all spoke condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
Albert Taurai, who had a broken spine, said he had ventured out to look for bread when he saw a group of plainclothes, armed men approaching.
They struck people with iron bars on the back, thighs and ankles “so that we would not be able to run away,” he said. The masked men told them: “Zimbabwe will never be shut down.”
“I am 46 years old,” Taurai said. “I have seen both (former President Robert) Mugabe and Mnangagwa. This just is worse than Mugabe.”
Zimbabwe’s government has defended the response by security forces, and police spokesperson Senior Assistant Commissioner Charity Charamba on Saturday expressed “grave concern” that people were committing crimes while wearing police or military uniforms. Some of the uniforms had been seized by “rogue elements” during the protests, she said.
Otherwise, “adequate security” was in place to ensure that people in Zimbabwe go about their lives, army spokesman Colonel Overson Mugwisi said.
They did not take questions.
The government blames the unrest on the opposition and calls it “terrorism.” The main opposition MDC party, which had contested Mnangagwa’s narrow election win last year in court, “is hoping to influence the international community’s view of Zimbabwe. They are hoping a government of national unity will arise from this. It will not happen,” the Information deputy minister, Energy Mutodi, said. The leader of that opposition, Nelson Chamisa, attended the funeral of Choto the soccer player on Saturday, to loud cheers. The government should compensate the victims of this week’s crackdown, Chamisa said. He said Mnangagwa’s government has turned out to be much like Mugabe’s.
“This is a sick government, because no serious government will deploy the military and ammunition on ordinary citizens,” he said, Choto’s seven-month-old daughter in his arms. — AFP