Sunday, February 25, 2007

The day Hatfield turned into "little Baghdad"


This is Highfield, a working class suburb of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, where President Robert Mugabe's security forces on Sunday brought down their might to prevent the opposition Movement for democratic Change (MDC) party from holding a rally that the High Court had approved but which police said should not go ahead because it could turn violent.

It all started as a somewhat harmless case of overzealousness on the part of the police....

The police, who have in the past used tough state security laws to ban opposition meetings, said they could not sanction the rally because they had no manpower and moreover, the MDC had a propensity for violence.

The MDC filed an urgent petition at the High Court, which was granted. High Court Judge Anne-Marie Gowora, ruled that the opposition party could hold the rally and specifically ordered the police not to interfere with the meeting.

But the drama took another twist. On Sunday morning, MDC supporters turned up at Zimbabwe Grounds to find all entrances sealed, with armed police officers shooing everybody away. ....

"This is something else. It is actually frightening when an entire police force which says it respects human rights fails to comply with a court order," Majome told ZimOnline at Machipisa police station where she had gone to seek an explanation from senior police officers.

Three hours later, Majome was still at Machipisa police station trying to locate the officer commanding Harare south, Washington Jangara, to order the officers to leave the venue. Jangara was never to be seen, having made his last public appearance at the High Court on Saturday afternoon when the police were ordered not to stop the opposition rally. ..

Sensing danger, the police quickly moved to pre-empt the situation. First they ordered the crowd to disperse, but before people could clear way the police swung into action, firing teargas canisters at a small group of MDC supporters outside Zimbabwe Grounds. The tension that had simmered since the early hours of the morning erupted into open confrontation.

The crowd, apparently caught unawares, scattered away in different directions as more truckloads of police officers armed with guns, truncheons and tear smoke poured into Highfield.

For a while, the police appeared to be on top of the situation but then the fleeing MDC supporters regrouped, chanting slogans as they came back on the police, throwing stones and whatever else one could get at their tormentors. The brave ones would pick the tear smoke canisters and throw them right back into the police trucks.

But the police were not going to lose this one. As if from nowhere, 11 Israeli-manufactured police water cannons rolled into the sprawling suburb and indiscriminately started firing teargas into people's homes, at small crowds, into the streets and at anything on two legs. It was chaos everywhere!

Meanwhile, MDC president Morgan Tsvangirai and his entourage of senior officials arrived at the venue and tried to reason with the police officers but they refused to budge. He drove to Southerton police station just outside Highfield hoping to talk to senior police officers there but they locked their offices when he arrived.

When Tsvangirai came back to the rally venue, a crowd of about 1 000 supporters swarmed around him....

Tsvangirai climbed into the back of his Isuzu truck and made a short and solemn speech.

"They have refused to allow us to enter the venue even though we have a court order. Zimbabwe will never be the same again. The struggle continues and we should not rest until we achieve our vision of a new Zimbabwe," he said.

He immediately drove off.

But the fighting and chaos continued in Highfield as police and MDC youths fought running battles. Soon it became a free-for-all with marauding gangs looting shops, others simply took clothes and shoes left by fleeing street side vendors, while others attacked any uniformed officer seen on the streets.

The chaos, which had started around 10 o’clock in the morning, went on until well after midnight, with the police patrolling the streets, firing into the air and ordering everyone to go back indoors. At least if you failed to listen, the teargas made sure you complied. "

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