Opinion: A photo Robert Mugabe does not want you to see

HARARE, Zimbabwe — An incident at a Harare art gallery last week starkly illustrated the problems besetting Zimbabwe’s power-sharing government.

A photo exhibition showcasing gory pictures of victims of violence in the country’s 2008 elections was confiscated by the police, later returned to the organizers after they secured a court order and then hidden when the police threatened a second raid. The police wanted to see written permission from everybody featured in the 65 pictures.

In the midst of this tussle, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai formally opened the exhibit. A photo of him with a swollen face after a savage beating at a police station in March 2007 formed part of the display. Tsvangirai, who had instructed the minister responsible for the police to uphold the court order and return the pictures, said he felt sorrow not anger when he heard of the attempt to stifle the display.

“Anyone who believes they can deny the truth of our past is delusional,” he said. “Covering up old wounds can only make them fester.

The seizure of the photos in Harare did not happen in isolation. In Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city, police last week jailed artist Owen Maseko, for exhibiting paintings depicting the Gukurahundi massacres, in which Mugabe and the army's Fifth Brigade are blamed for killing more than 10,000 Ndebele civilians. Maseko was held in jail for four nights before being released on bail. The art gallery owner was jailed for one night and the paintings have been seized.

The Mugabe government is giving a clear message. It does not want the public to see any evidence that suggests it has committed any human rights abuses. At the Harare art gallery, Tsvangirai spoke out against Mugabe's heavy-handed attempts to prevent Zimbabwe from knowing its own history.  

“There is nothing new in this story,” Tsvangirai pointed out. “It reminds us of the trauma we went through as a nation. The reason why we are having this inclusive government is because of our desire to end the suffering of our people and say never again should we see a repeat of this.”

Tsvangirai said when he goes around the country he hears cries for revenge. “Forgiveness cannot happen in a vacuum,” Tsvangirai said. “There can be no real forgiveness without justice.”

Tsvangirai's remarks are timely. A delegation comprising ministers from both sides of the government of national unity is due to go to Europe where it will call for the removal of sanctions. This is Tsvangirai’s main concession to Mugabe and he is pressing ahead with it despite resistance from within his own ranks.

Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change is currently fashioning a parliamentary motion to name and shame those responsible for electoral violence. Mugabe’s Zanu-PF members walked out when the roll-call of the accused was read out.

Mugabe is in denial. Despite South African President Jacob Zuma’s recent bid to revive the stalled inter-party talks, Mugabe says he won’t negotiate so long as sanctions remain in place. His detractors argue he is solely responsible for those sanctions and has it within his power to get them removed.

But Zimbabwe’s 86-year-old leader, cantankerous at the best of times, refuses to make the changes necessary for the European Union and United States to contemplate lifting the measures. 

The issue, both in the controversial photo exhibit and the larger national debate, is how Zimbabwe will come to terms with the political violence and the human rights abuses that have taken place over the past 10 years.

A human rights commission headed by a respected academic was sworn in Wednesday. But not a single person responsible for the 2008 violence, documented in the art gallery exhibit, has been brought to justice. Instead of pursuing the perpetrators of the political violence, the police continue to arrest civic activists.

And Mugabe’s iron grip on the public media intensifies by the week. The president doesn’t believe he lost the 2008 election. It was stolen from him he claims. Nor does he believe reports of torture.

According to a recent account by MDC election official Dennis Murira, "Cries from Goromonzi: Inside Zimbabwe’s Torture Chambers," there has been no accountability by the state.

“We want to know who was supplying all the unmarked vehicles and who was commanding them,” Murira says. “There should be total disclosure and truth-telling.” In particular, he says, those who perpetrated crimes of torture and rape should be brought to justice.

“We cannot continue sweeping these crimes under the carpet,” Murira says.

One victim of Mugabe’s thugs was prominent MDC activist Tonderai Ndira. His wife Plaxedes says she continues to live a nightmare with nobody prosecuted.

“I do not know what these people did to my husband,” she said. “I do not know the pain and suffering he went through and I don’t know what his last thoughts were. But I want whoever murdered my husband to face justice.”

Her plea will probably go unheard. Investigations by the new human rights body are likely to be curtailed by an amnesty for those involved in the violence of the period from 2000 to 2009 which included the murders of farmers David Stevens and Martin Olds and MDC activists Talent Mabika and Tichaona Chiminya, among others.

Their killers walk free and are known to the authorities.

Sadly, those seeking justice for their loved ones will have to wait a while yet.