'Where We Have Hope': A Journalist on Zimbabwe

In recent weeks, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe ordered the demolition of shantytowns and left thousands of people without homes or livelihood. Host Renee Montagne speaks with Andrew Meldrum about his book Where We Have Hope: A Memoir of Zimbabwe. Meldrum lived and worked as a journalist in Zimbabwe for 23 years, until he was expelled by the Mugabe regime.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

High on the agenda for the G8 meeting in Scotland is Africa. Among those who believe that debt relief and more aid are important is journalist Andrew Meldrum, who was based in Zimbabwe for nearly 25 years.

Mr. ANDREW MELDRUM (Journalist): But also what is needed is a bit of tough love, which is, you know, an insistence that democracy and respect for human rights, rule of law, these are not things that are alien to Africa. These are what African people are struggling for and this is what the government should provide. And I think that they should be held accountable to that.

MONTAGNE: Andrew Meldrum would argue that the government of Robert Mugabe is not accountable. Over the years, he reported on land seizures the disintegration of a once prosperous economy, the repression and torture of those who opposed President Mugabe. Two years ago, he was taken from his home by intelligence agents and hustled onto a plane with a one-way ticket out. He had been the last foreign journalist left in Zimbabwe. In his memoir, "Where There Is Hope," Andrew Meldrum writes that he never expected such an end when he arrived in the capital, Harare, back in 1980. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Andrew Meldrum's memoir is entitled "Where We Have Hope."]

Mr. MELDRUM: Zimbabwe glistened, you know, on--in all of Africa and, indeed, the world as the kind of progressive center where one of the world's trouble spots--minority-ruled Rhodesia, which had had a 16-year bloody war against minority rule--then suddenly became majority-ruled Zimbabwe, a place of racial reconciliation and a place where lives of black Zimbabweans were improving across the board. And it was a place of great hope and it was a beacon to apartheid South Africa that it could leave apartheid and become a multiracial democracy.

MONTAGNE: What was it about Zimbabwe? When you showed up as an American, a journalist, what was it that so appealed to you? Because I gather you weren't intending to stay 20-some years, as you did.

Mr. MELDRUM: No, I thought I was going for just a couple of years. But really what appealed to me was something rare for a journalist. It was an opportunity to report about positive news, to report about a country that had gone from war to peace. I stayed on, as you suggested, because I still found Zimbabwe--even as Zimbabwe got into the troubles, the difficulties of sustaining a democracy, I found the story very compelling.

MONTAGNE: When you arrived in 1980, the newly elected president of Zimbabwe was Robert Mugabe. What did he promise and what did he look like he would achieve?

Mr. MELDRUM: He was a shadowy figure before then as a guerrilla leader who nobody really knew very much. He emerged from the shadows. Suddenly there was a new statesman of international caliber, it appeared. He enunciated a policy of racial reconciliation. He said he was going to have a mixed economy that would improve the lives of the majority of Zimbabweans. He included whites and opposition figures in his Cabinet and he appeared to be a magnanimous leader who was going to really be very wise in his leadership of Zimbabwe.

MONTAGNE: Three years into your time in Zimbabwe, you began to see the story of the transformation of Zimbabwe turn in this rather terrible way. It was a massacre in an area of the country called Matabeleland. Tell us just as a reporter, what happened?

Mr. MELDRUM: I heard that there were massacres going on and I went down from Harare to the second city of Zimbabwe, Bulawayo, and very quickly I was engulfed by reports from people of families being killed, of whole villages being killed, of horrific murders where people were herded into huts and shot by the army, of all the men in a family being killed and the female survivors having to dance on top of their bodies. I mean, it was, you know, really horrible stories. These people were in hiding in Bulawayo because they were afraid of retribution from the government army. And suddenly, I could no longer look at Robert Mugabe or his government as being so benign to the country. Instead, it was a government that appeared to be committing gross human rights atrocities in the interest of staying in power, really of just consolidating his own power and of imposing a one-party state.

MONTAGNE: How did you continue to report in Zimbabwe as the country came more and more under the harsh rule of Robert Mugabe?

Mr. MELDRUM: It was a challenge to me to report fairly about the positive things that were indeed going on in Zimbabwe. People in--particularly of the majority Shona tribe were still getting great improvements in education and health, in their standards of living. But, you know, I also was obliged to write that the Ndebele people were lagging behind in these development gains. Also, I was then reporting on corruption stories as they emerged and also on mismanagement of the economy. So it was a challenging time for me as a journalist.

MONTAGNE: The Ndebele people being the minority tribe of Zimbabwe. You were the last foreign correspondent to leave Zimbabwe. If a foreign correspondent wants to get into Zimbabwe now and cover anything there, they have to sneak in. How were you kicked out, and how'd you manage to even stay as long as you did?

Mr. MELDRUM: Well, I managed to stay as long as I did because I had, you know, established Zimbabwe as my home, and I had a permanent residence in Zimbabwe. And I became a kind of figure. The Zimbabwe government focused on me and they thought that by throwing me in jail, by putting me on trial under their new anti-press law that they could frighten me into leaving the country. Instead, I stayed in the country. I stayed for my trial. I faced a possible jail term of two years. But through my great, brave and skillful Zimbabwean lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, I won an acquittal. And I continued to report about human rights abuses, particularly state torture, because I felt it was my duty, really, my obligation as a journalist. And then the government simply abducted me and expelled me from the country. I think they were trying not only to silence me but to give an example to all Zimbabwean journalists that they should, you know, stop reporting stories critical of the government. But it backfired. I have a larger platform to speak about Zimbabwe and other issues, and the Zimbabwean journalists who are still in the country are continuing their work, even though a hundred have been arrested and face charges.

MONTAGNE: Andrew Meldrum is the author of "Where We Have Hope: A Memoir of Zimbabwe." Thanks very much.

Mr. MELDRUM: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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