'Fear' Details Mugabe's Brutalities in Zimbabwe

For years, Zimbabweans have suffered under President Robert Mugabe. There are food shortages, a currency made useless by hyperinflation and violence. African journalist Peter Godwin returned to Zimbabwe to follow the 2008 presidential election. Goodwin talks to Renee Montagne about his book The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Zimbabwe has come to be known as a country thats plunged from prosperity to economic ruin in the span of a decade.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Zimbabweans face food shortages and hyper-inflation, all while supporters of the president enrich themselves. Robert Mugabe has been in power since 1980. Early on, his forces slaughtered 20,000 of his countrymen who rose up against him.

MONTAGNE: Journalist Peter Godwin covered that story and he returned to Zimbabwe, the country of his birth, to follow the 2008 election. The voters rejected President Mugabe. He ended up staying in office because his party controlled the vote count, and because it launched a campaign of terror against opposition supporters.

Godwin describes those dramatic days in his new book, "The Fear." He begins with Robert Mugabe's campaign posters, where Mugabe is raising a clenched fist and defiance of his mutinous subjects.

Mr. PETER GODWIN (Author, "The Fear"): I'll read you a little bit just to show what he seems like to me.

(Reading) Somehow though his large gold-rimmed spectacles, the little tufts of starched white handkerchief that winks from his brandished clench and his toothbrush mustache tell a different story; the story of the prissy schoolmaster he once was; a slight almost effeminate figure, his small manicured hands given to birdlike gestures. And, indeed, if you were casting the role of homicidal African dictator who fights his way to power and stays there against all the odds for nearly three decades, Robert Mugabe wouldn't even rate a callback.

MONTAGNE: Your book at moments reads like a travelogue of brutalities. As you cross the country, you meet with Zimbabweans who dared to vote for the opposition candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai. This is back in 2008, the presidential election.

But tell us about one of those people you met, Owen Machisa(ph), who maybe is not that the worst-case but it's one of the saddest.

Mr. GODWIN: Right. I mean what was so moving about him really, was that he'd lost his home. It had been burned down. They've been assaulted. But what he focused on, almost sort of totemically, was the loss of his chainsaw because he was a tree feller. He just felt that without the chainsaw, he couldn't rebuild his life.

MONTAGNE: Well, the key though seems that he says he believed in democracy and he doesn't anymore, which would be exactly the point for Mugabe.

Mr. GODWIN: Right. And there were so many people like that. I mean the Zimbabweans are an extraordinary case. This is a country which has the highest literacy rate in Africa and it has an enormous middle class, and they're very knowledgeable and educated, and they're democratic in their hearts and their souls - they want representative government. And what happened in 2008, this torture on an industrial scale, shattered that belief among many of them. And what I heard, time and time again, was that they had lost faith in the international community; that they had been hoping they would be rescued in some way and they weren't.

MONTAGNE: Well, you write about this strategy of President Mugabe's and his supporters as something called not genocide, but politicide. Please read one little section there where you describe what that is.

Mr. GODWIN: (Reading) And now the murders here are accompanied by torture and rape on an industrial scale, committed on a catch and release basis. When those who survive, terribly injured limp home, or are carried or pushed in wheelbarrows, or on the back of pickup trucks, they act like human billboards advertising the appalling consequences of opposition to the tyranny, bearing their gruesome political stigmata. And in their home communities, their return causes ripples of anxiety to spread. The people have given this time of violence and suffering its own name, which I hear for the first time tonight. They are calling it Chidudu. It means simply The Fear.

MONTAGNE: You know, you spoke a moment ago about why people in Zimbabwe were looking to the West and hoping for some saving. This is - I mean I quote to now. You write that, "Indeed, the truth is that in the race of African moral outrages, Zimbabwe's body count earns us a mere bronze to Darfur's gold and Congo's silver."

Mr. GODWIN: Right. And I mean that's the sort of invidious competition that you're in. It's kind of like a reverse beauty contest in attracting the outside world's attention.

MONTAGNE: But also because it never seems quite as bad as some of Zimbabwe's neighbors.

Mr. GODWIN: And that again is the skill of Mugabe. He sort of senses the point at which you can go so far and no further and you should pull back, because you're about to topple over into some generalized sense of international outrage. And will you see the other thing he does, that he waits until there's some other big international crisis that everybody is looking away at, and then does his dirty work.

MONTAGNE: Well, the reverse might be true at this moment in history though, in the sense that in North Africa there are examples of success in toppling longtime dictators.

Is there any chance for Zimbabweans to mount the sort of mass demonstrations and protests that one saw in Egypt and elsewhere?

Mr. GODWIN: It's a very good point and Zimbabweans are indeed enormously cheered and encouraged by whats happened. But the big key to whether these uprisings work is the response of the security forces. I mean if the Egyptian army had decided to back Mubarak, they could have cleared Tahrir Square in a couple of hours but they didn't.

And the situation in Zimbabwe is that the security forces are very loyal to Mugabe. He's made sure of that. So if you try and have these protests in Zimbabwe, you won't be putting the stems of flowers down the soldiers' barrels because they'll be firing live ammunition at you.

MONTAGNE: Have you thought that it may come to waiting Robert Mugabe out? I mean he's a man in his late '80s.

Mr. GODWIN: Right. I mean it sometimes seems to me that that's actually the extent of the Western diplomatic policy...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GODWIN: ...towards Zimbabwe - wait till Mugabe dies. The problem with that, first off, is that there's no guarantee that things will get better when Mugabe dies. There are two rival successors within his own party, but both of them have blood on their hands. Both of them are no better than he is. And the other thing is that Mugabe, he - I don't know if you've seen any pictures of him recently. But he's one of the youngest looking 87-year-olds I think I've ever seen and he could last for another decade or so.

MONTAGNE: What then does that mean for Zimbabwe? I mean what is the path forward?

Mr. GODWIN: I'm quite bleak for one main reason, which is that they've discovered probably the biggest find of alluvial diamonds in eastern Zimbabwe; the biggest find of alluvial diamonds in history possibly. And that money is going straight into Mugabe's coffers. And that has tended to revivify his party, and seems to be making them more determined than ever to hold onto power.

MONTAGNE: Journalist Peter Godwin's new book is "The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe."

And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

And Im Steve Inskeep.

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