A bad jail wastes a body quickly. When I entered Cell 6 at Gwanda police station, I was fit. After five days in a concrete and iron-bar tank, with no food and only a few sips of water, my skin was flaking and my clothes were slipping off. A prison blanket had given me lice. The water I had palmed from a rusty tap in the shower had given me diarrhea. Under a 24-hour strip light, I hadn't slept more than a few minutes at a time. And I stank. So many men had passed through Cell 6 that they had left their smell on the walls, and while I was making my own stink, the walls were also passing theirs onto me.
It took 22 hours to get arrested in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. On March 28, I flew into Zimbabwe's second city, Bulawayo, with the intention of reporting on the ruinous policies that have turned Zimbabwe into one of the poorest and most repressive countries in the world. Foreign journalists are routinely refused permission to travel to Zimbabwe, so I entered the country as a tourist and drove south from Bulawayo to the goldfields of the Great Dyke. I was following tens of thousands of Zimbabweans who, as the economy collapsed, headed to the gold-mining region of Matabeleland, hoping the red hills might give up something to live on. My goal was to get a firsthand look at the misery facing ordinary people in Zimbabwe today. But I had little notion of just how close I would get.
TO MAINTAIN MY PRETENSE AS A TOURIST, I would have been safer staying north, near the game parks and Victoria Falls. But Matabeleland is a microcosm of Zimbabwe's implosion. Thousands in the region are dying of malnutrition. Hundreds of thousands survive by trapping wild animals or bare-handed mining. When I arrived in the gold-rush town of West Nicholson, I met with a local miner in his bungalow. Several times during our 10-minute chat, he would step out for a few moments. It soon became clear why. When I emerged from his house, two plainclothes officers were waiting to detain me.
In the 1980s, Zimbabwe was the second largest economy in southern Africa. Millions of tourists visited each year to see hippos, lions and the awesome drama of Victoria Falls. And Zimbabwe--a nation of 11 million to 13 million people (nobody knows the precise number, partly because so many have fled) gave black Africans the best education and health care on the continent. But over the past two decades, Mugabe's single-minded protection of his power has devastated the economy and turned the country into a police state. Unemployment is at 80%, living standards are back to their 1953 levels, and the World Health Organization says life expectancy is 34 for women and 37 for men--the lowest in the world. Inflation hit 1,792.9% in February and is predicted to reach 3,700% by year's end. (A currency free fall of that magnitude means, for instance, that in nominal terms, a single brick today costs more than a three-bedroom house with a swimming pool did in 1990.)
Arriving in the country is like touching down the day after a cataclysm--a place where the clocks have stopped. There are roads but few cars, and roadside railings are torn up at the stumps. The shops feature bare shelves and price boards for imaginary products that are changed three times a day. Telephones don't work, the power is out, and blackened factory stacks spew no smoke. People loll in the streets with nothing to do and nowhere to go, even if there were a way to get there. "What do people eat?" I asked a lawyer I met. "Good question," he replied.
The one thing Zimbabwe is in no danger of running out of is pictures of "Comrade" Robert Gabriel Mugabe. He looks down from framed photographs in every store, gas station and government office, a small man in gold glasses. When I landed in Zimbabwe, he was front-page news in every newspaper, railing against the West, which could "go hang" for plotting "monkey business" against his country, and members of the opposition, who "will get bashed." A few weeks earlier, I caught a television interview on his 83rd birthday. "Some people say I am a dictator," he said at his 25-bedroom villa in the capital, Harare, complete with Italian-marble bathrooms and roof tiles from Shanghai. "My own people say I am handsome."
MY 10-MINUTE CONVERSATION WITH THE miner in West Nicholson turned out to be my last interview. The plainclothes officers brought me to the West Nicholson police station, where I spent the night. The next day I was driven north to the provincial police headquarters at Gwanda. My escorts accused me of planning to write "negative" stories about Zimbabwe--as if arresting me would dispose me to more positive stories--and carried with them a report from West Nicholson's police chief describing me as a "dedicated journalist on a clandestine mission."
At Gwanda, I was interrogated by a series of detectives and was denied a lawyer and a phone call. Officers crowded in to see me. They were excited. One said he wanted to "manhandle" me. Two others grinned and bounced before me, trying to make me flinch. The detective in charge of my case introduced himself as "Moyo" and disclosed that he approved of a beating if the crime warranted it. I was driven to the prosecutors' office and charged with breaching sections 79 and 80, Chapter 10: 27, of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, "working as a journalist without accreditation." The maximum sentence was two years.
"Do you think I can just come to your country, start asking questions and write anything I want?" demanded an officer. Nobody knew I was here, I replied. Nobody knew what was happening to me. I didn't know what was happening to me. Could I call someone? Moyo ignored me. His officers expressed outrage at my nerve.
The only feature in my cell aside from walls and bars was an iron shackling ring in the floor. Prisoners at Gwanda are paraded every morning before the station's officers and, one by one, interrogated and slapped, humiliated. Some of my fellow prisoners had been arrested for trapping porcupines in the forest, selling gasoline, stealing--petty offenses committed in desperate efforts to feed their families. A piece of graffiti on the wall read, P. MOYO WAS HERE FOR STANDING.