Big Brother Bob is Watching

Trip Start Apr 26, 2005
Trip End Nov 17, 2005

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Flag of Zimbabwe  ,
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

They seemed to come out of nowhere as they approached us; three plain-clothed agents of the Zimbabwe Criminal Investigation Department, flashing their IDs, asking after our business, our passports, with hard, accusing looks. One took me aside and demanded to see my camera. My hands shook as I displayed on the LCD screen the pictures I'd taken over the last several days.

Moments later the same agent was in the back of our vehicle, my cousin ________ following the other two agents and ________'s business contact in the car ahead, on our way to the Harare Central Police Station. In my short life I've never been so afraid. I'm going to jail, I thought. And all the people I've touched here are coming with me.

* * *

Macadam's Takeaway on Samora Machel Avenue in downtown Harare. It's cheap, decent halaal food attracts my cousin, a Muslim, and it becomes a kind of headquarters during our stay in the city. ________ and his business partner ________ are in Zimbabwe on business, sourcing oranges for export to one of Zambia's largest grocery store chains. I'm along for the ride as they trek from farm to farm, making calls and chasing up leads on oranges, customs paper work and transportation in the city.

But along with everything else in this country the orange, export and transport industries have suffered, and it seems we're beset by barriers at every turn. Even Macadams lets us down, as ________ complains of being short-changed on his serving of chicken and rice.

Before the meal I'd stepped out onto the broad, busy street to take pictures of Harare's downtown skyline, which easily puts Lusaka to shame. Even with the decay and desperation it's a lovely city.

Even if lunch isn't great we have a promising meeting for afterward. Finally ________ has found an orange supplier, a black farmer who amicably took control of his white neighbours farm.

We meet him at our other headquarters, the parking-lot out front of our hotel, the Horizon Inn--which when the sun goes down in this area of Harare, could be dubbed the Whore-izon. When the farmer arrives, __________, who speaks Shona, the dominant Zimbabwean dialect, talks with him briefly before the farmer opens his trunk to show him a bag, or pocket, of oranges.

________ calls my cousin and I over to meet the farmer, and we're shown the pocket, a bag of red mesh bulging with the bright orange fruit. As they talk business I take a step back, keeping my ear off the conversation and a casual eye on the street. That's when the cops showed up.

* * *

Just after 13:00 hours we observed a suspicious group of men at a take-away; a black, an Indian and a white, driving a Mitsubishi Pajero with Zambian plates. We witnessed the white man taking many photographs on Samora Machel road. After they finished their food we followed them to the Horizon Inn hotel, where the black individual met with another in the parking lot. The man opened the boot of his car to show his companion some object. Then the other two males joined the meeting and were also shown the contents of the boot. At this moment we moved in to apprehend the suspects.

* * *

The route from the Horizon to the Harare Central Police Station isn't a long one, but as we cruised through the streets and light traffic the world seemed to slow down. The cop who'd searched my camera had accused me of being a foreign journalist, and berated me for taking photos that he said compromised Zimbabwe's reputation.

Among them, a picture of a broken telephone booth with a dilapidated road-side store in the background. "What will people think if you show them this picture?" he challenged me. "You could sell this picture to western newspapers."

Strangely he let me keep the shot, though I offered, almost pleaded, to erase it. And while he searched my camera, he hadn't asked to look into my shoulder bag. Now that bag seemed to burn a hole through the floor of the car as I tried to surreptitiously cram it under the seat. Inside was my notebook, pages of it full of scribbles, story ideas, leads, and those nasty little facts I'd picked up about the situation in Zimbabwe.

Worse yet, my notebook contained addresses and phone numbers; the contact information of people I know or had met in Harare. Family members. Friends. People who would now be suspect, pulled in for interrogation, threatened and maybe even jailed. People, who in some cases had warned me to be careful with the knowledge I had gained, compromised by my naivety.

Though I'm not a paid writer that little detail won't save me in one of the world's most repressive states. Journalists in Zimbabwe have long been targeted by police, and in the last several years many foreign and local journalists have been beaten and jailed. Many reporters are still in prison, as their lawyers and public defenders have been beaten and jailed as well. The presses of the anti-Mugabe Daily Mail newspaper were stopped and it's office building bombed. Not a friendly place for an interloper like myself.

But now my companions and I were being taken to the police station to be questioned and searched, and along with my bag I wanted to hide myself under the seat. I was having trouble breathing, my palms were wet and my throat dry even as I drank from my water bottle. My head swam with thoughts of dank holding cells, beatings, and being a fish in Harare's notorious Chikurubi Prison.

I feared for my friends and family, for the position I'd put them in. I tried not to think of the international incident the situation posed. Though I am a Canadian citizen I was travelling on my Zambian passport. As such not only would the Canadian High Commission have nothing to do with me but also the Zambian embassy might not help either, since Zambia doesn't recognize dual citizenship. It took all my will power not to panic, not to try and throw the notebook out the window of the car as I contemplated what was to come.

The grounds of the police station swarmed with uniforms as we drove into the parking lot. The car ahead, with the farmer and under-covers, found the last empty space in the lot, so we idled beside the car as the three cops and the farmer argued. He seemed to be selling us down the river, wagging his finger at us and shrugging his shoulders.

Moments later, as simply as we'd slipped into the station we drove out, and I was floored with confusion and relief. We moved slowly back the way we came, praising Harare and Zimbabwe in general to the cop still sitting in the back seat beside ________. How magnificent the city was compared to Lusaka! Have you ever been to Lusaka, sir? No? Well you're not missing much! Harare is so much better! How great Zimbabwe is, yes sir!

Back at the Horizon I watched warily as the three cops strolled away. The farmer and my companions laughed to see how badly I was shaken up. I could barely control the cigarette in my fingers before I collapsed on the street. If I'd been alone I would have sobbed with fear and relief. But what the fuck had just happened?

Two simple things had saved us. While the cops had seen me taking pictures, had suspected I was a foreign journalist and followed us, I was carrying that Zambian passport. If I'd had my Canadian papers they would surely have searched me with more vigour. How they must have been surprised to find me a fellow African.

Not that this would have been enough for us to avoid suspicion. Every foreigner--and every Zimbabwean with foreign exchange--doing business in Zimbabwe exchanges his or her money illegally. With black market rates running to almost 400% higher than the official exchange, anyone with American dollars is a fool not to go black market.

The cops may have tailed us on the suspicion that I was a journalist, but when they saw ________ and the farmer meeting they thought they had an illegal currency deal on their hands. They were just as surprised to find ________ with a Zambian passport as they were that I had one. How much more taken aback were they when the farmer opened the trunk to reveal a bag of oranges.

But it wasn't our nationalities that finally cleared us, it was the farmer. Far from implicating us, he was defending us, and himself. After all, this was a perfectly legal business operation, with the papers to prove it. It was on the farmer's insistence that we went to the police station. In his experience with war vets and other authorities the farmer had learned how to work through their perverted bureaucracies. He knew that the cops had seen their case against us evaporate but could still cause trouble by passing judgement on us there and then, prompting a bribe by way of fine. So he insisted we go right to the source, the police station.

What he didn't know about were the barely legible scribbles in my notebook. As he and my friends laughed at my scattered state I planned to destroy my notes. I could have stashed them away in some hidden compartment of the car but the knowledge of their existence would have haunted me.

That night I rewrote my notes as jokes in the margins of a paperback book of Woody Allen's humour, burned the originals and considered myself lucky. While the tension slowly evaporated I was left thinking how close I'd come to disaster. No longer will I take for granted my ability, my 'right', to freely write what I see. As capable as I sometimes feel I was merely a babe in a treacherous woods, and hope to never mistake myself that way again.

In these stories I have omitted the names of my friends and relatives for reasons that should now be clear, and have decided not to visit Zimbabwe again until Mugabe and his war vets are gone.

As it was I carried a deep apprehension until finally we crossed the border into Zambia some days later. Safe on that side I bought an ice-cold Coke and drank it with relief.
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