A wave of abductions, torture and arrests in Zimbabwe are targeting opposition activists and other government critics, the latest being a popular comedian dragged from her home by armed and masked men.
Barely two years after euphoric scenes engulfed Zimbabwe following the forced resignation of former repressive ruler Robert Mugabe, frustration and fear have returned.
Comedian Samantha Kureya was this week dragged from her bed, stripped naked and tortured by masked men with assault rifles for skits perceived as anti-government. She spoke to The Associated Press from her hospital bed.
“I am living in fear,” she said, complaining of “severe pain” in her legs and on her back.
Kureya said the men claiming to be police officers dragged her from bed half naked and bundled her into a waiting car on Wednesday night. They beat her using short whips, forced her to roll in a stream of sewage and drink from it, she said.
“I was wearing my underwear and a T-shirt when they took me, they didn’t even give me a chance to dress properly,” she said. Her abductors forced her to strip naked during the torture and warned her against mocking the government before abandoning her to seek clothing and help from strangers, said Kureya.
She had received threats on social media before the abduction, she said. Her latest skit mocked security agents for beating up demonstrators that included elderly women.
Political tensions are rising in Zimbabwe as the economy deteriorates with inflation at over 175% and growing dissatisfaction with President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took over from Mugabe less than two years ago with promises of a “new dawn” and a “flowering of democracy.”
Human rights groups say at least six activists were abducted and tortured by suspected security agents ahead of an opposition demonstration last week. Police later used violence to disperse demonstrators in Harare on August 16.
On Friday, police broke up a protest by a group of teachers and arrested nine people, including a lawyer for the teachers and a journalist filming the arrests, according to Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, an NGO providing them with lawyers. They are yet to be charged, said the organization.
One of the activists abducted and tortured ahead of last week’s demonstration, Tatenda Mombeyarara had visible wounds on his legs, hands, buttocks and back. His kidneys were damaged and doctors put metal plates and pins on his fractured left leg and hand, he said, showing AP a scan while lying on a hospital bed.
He said he was beaten with sjamboks (short whips), gun butts and a wheel spanner and also submerged in a pool of dirty water at a quarry dumpsite.
“They told me ‘you think you are a hero, all that will end today. You are going to die and your American sponsors will not save you’,” said Mombeyarara, who has been in hospital for the past nine days. “I am still traumatized. The pain was unbearable. I thought I was going to die.”
An opposition member of parliament said unknown people fired shots at his house Wednesday night, while a top official was arrested Thursday and accused of failing to stop supporters from demonstrating against the government. Since January, more than 20 activists have been charged with plotting to unseat Mnangagwa.
Police spokesman Paul Nyathi said the recent abductions and attacks “are being investigated” but denied that security agents were involved.
“We cannot blame security agents (for the abduction) because investigations are still underway,” he said.
Government spokesman Nick Mangwana blamed the attacks on “a force” he associated with Mugabe “to impair President Mnangagwa’s image as a sincere reformer.”
The U.S embassy in Zimbabwe and the European Union Delegation to Zimbabwe said in a joint statement earlier this week that reports of worsening human rights abuses were of “great concern.”
Kureya, the comedian, said she would continue poking fun at the government despite her abductors threatening to “put a bullet” in her mother’s head if she continues with her work.
“That is how I survive,” she said. “I don’t have any other job, plus we all can’t just keep quiet when things are as bad as they are in this country.”