Accessibility links

Reporter's Notebook: Leaving Zimbabwe - 2002-08-07

For the past three years, Martin Rushmere has been reporting for V-O-A from Zimbabwe. Based in Harare, he has covered about everything from food shortages to stampedes at football matches. Most of his reports, however, have dealt with the country's political and economic turmoil, and it is this turmoil that forced him, several weeks ago, to leave the country. In this reporter's notebook, Mr. Rushmere, who is now living in England, shares some of his thoughts on leaving the country of his birth:

The drive from Harare to Johannesburg takes about 14 hours, which gave me plenty of time to think about what I was doing: leaving Zimbabwe for the last time. To my surprise, the journey was not nearly as emotionally wrenching as I had expected it to be.

As I was driving over the Limpopo River, which separates Zimbabwe's southern border from South Africa, in a car filled with more personal mementos than clothing, I glanced back only briefly. Though there are many things I will miss about Zimbabwe, there was no doubt in my mind I was making the right choice.

The decision to leave took several months, which is probably not a very long time considering I was born in Zimbabwe and had lived there for most of my life. Perhaps the person who made the decision easiest for me was Robert Mugabe's information minister, Jonathan Moyo. His unrelenting stream of hate and invective transformed what had been a small, if growing, desire to leave into a powerful urge.

He had been a friend of mine in the days when he was a university professor. Now, this onetime friend, who possessed remarkable insights into the real motives of politicians, had become a terrifying stranger who was capable of justifying the most brutal abuses of the legal system as long as they were done in what he called the "people's will."

So alien and loathsome did I find Mr. Moyo's utterances that I feared it was only a matter of time before I would lose control at a news conference and shout out some personal insult, a reaction, I suspect, that would not have displeased him at all.

After all, I was the enemy: a reporter who was representing a foreign news organization. Any outburst of mine would have given him the excuse he needed to, at best, expel me from the country or, at worst, let me sample the prison system that so many members of the opposition have experienced.

But my decision to leave became irreversible during this year's presidential election campaign. The whole nation watched as Robert Mugabe's supporters terrorized the opposition. Though Mr. Mugabe's spokesmen would regularly deny any government role in the violence, I doubt many people believed them.

Mr. Mugabe's subsequent victory in the March presidential elections surprised no one. Zimbabweans didn't need international observers to tell them what they already knew: Mr. Mugabe had blatantly rigged the vote.

After the election, there was no reason for me to remain in Zimbabwe. By staying, I felt I would be giving unofficial support to an unjust regime. Besides, there was also my frustration as a journalist. I was unable to do anything to prevent a country once held up as a model for Africa from sinking into starvation, political thuggery and rule by terror.

But though I have no regrets about leaving Zimbabwe, I must also admit to some sadness, mostly when I think of what might have been.

I remember standing in Harare's Rufaro stadium in April 1980, marveling as President Mugabe was sworn in as the first -- and so far only -- executive head of the state of Zimbabwe. At his side was Britain's Prince Charles, the representative of the United Kingdom, the former colonial power.

Like most white Zimbabweans I was uncertain of my future. Pessimists and white supremacists had been warning that, once in power, Mr. Mugabe would immediately force all whites to leave the country.

To my surprise and great relief, Mr. Mugabe devoted part of his speech that day to assuring whites that they were welcome to stay. Later I would come to view this as the first of many demonstrations of his political shrewdness.

Twenty-two years later, I now view Mr. Mugabe as just another corrupt dictator who has ruined his country and stolen whatever wealth it had for his family and friends. It is an old story, and not limited to Africa.

I am also worried for my former colleagues. Since I left three months ago, more than a dozen have been arrested. The only real defense they have against Zimbabwe's rough justice is that the West is interested in their plight, which gives them some protection.

But there are millions of other people in Zimbabwe who are probably far worse off than these journalists. News reports say three million people in the country are in danger of starvation.

I also realize that, unlike me, these people will probably never get the chance to cross the Limpopo.