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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Zimbabwe has the distinction of having the unhappiest people on Earth, according to one survey, although they once had the highest standard of living in Africa.

My guest, journalist Peter Godwin, grew up there when it was white-ruled Rhodesia. His parents remain there. He's just published his third book about Zimbabwe. He expected the book to be about dancing on the political grave of Zimbabwe's long-time dictator Robert Mugabe, the world's oldest leader.

When he started his reporting for the book in 2008, it looked as if Mugabe was finally voted out of office, but Mugabe called for a runoff and conducted a torture campaign to scare people out of voting against him. A lot of Godwin's reporting for the book was conducted in hospitals filled with torture victims.

Mugabe came to power after leading the liberation movement that ended white minority rule in Rhodesia. He's been in power since Zimbabwe was recognized in 1980.

Peter Godwin has been banned from the country since 1983, when he covered a military massacre of supporters of the opposition party, but Godwin has found ways to get back in. His new book is called "The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe."

Peter Godwin, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Do you think the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa are having any effect in Zimbabwe?

Mr. PETER GODWIN (Author, "The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe"): Well, they've certainly having an effect on Zimbabweans. They have been watching it very, very closely, the various uprisings in North Africa. And they've had an effect on Mugabe's regime, who are very nervous about it.

And for example, recently a whole bunch of Zimbabweans led by an academic at the university were arrested simply for watching the uprisings on television. They had taped off a news channel and were watching it, and they were all arrested, and a number of them have been charged with high treason. So it's certainly making the regime very, very nervous.

GROSS: Does Mugabe, who is the long-time dictator in Zimbabwe, have any directs relations with Gadhafi, the long-time dictator in Libya?

Mr. GODWIN: Yes, I mean, Gadhafi's been a very good friend of Mugabe's. He's given Mugabe money over the years. He's done special oil deals. They have been very close. He supported him in international forums and on the world stage and in the U.N. So they are great buddies on the international stage.

GROSS: And you write in your book: If you were casting the role of homicidal African dictator who fights his way to power and stays there against the odds for nearly three decades, Mugabe wouldn't even rate a callback. What do you mean by that?

Mr. GODWIN: Well, I mean that he is - he doesn't conform to the clich� of any dictator and certainly of any African dictator. He is a much more - and I use this world carefully - fastidious dictator insofar as he was not always a dictator.

He didn't just sort of come to power in a coup. He did win an election. He was a liberation hero, and he yearns for that moral high ground that he once occupied.

It's easy to forget that Mugabe, before the end of Apartheid and before Mandela was released, Mugabe was sort of like Mandela. He was the colossus astride the African stage.

And that's one of the reasons he's proved so difficult to pry out of his job because he still manages to exploit that historic kind of stature.

GROSS: People must have a really long memory because he has defied that stature for a really long time.

Mr. GODWIN: It's interesting. I mean, you know, if you go to Zimbabwe, it's similar to going to, say, Cuba or Venezuela or something. You would imagine that the revolution happened last week if you were to read the government media and watch government and listen to government radio.

They're constantly banging on about it at their political rallies, as though the war has just ended. And in fact, it ended over 30 years ago. And often, you have the specter of Mugabe talking to a youthful audience about the struggle, and you look at them, and you realize that none of them were alive during the struggle.

GROSS: You say that the people of Zimbabwe are officially the unhappiest people on Earth. What qualifies them for that sad rating?

Mr. GODWIN:

Mr. GODWIN: Well, I mean, there's this international survey that looks at various phenomenon and rates it, and they came out bottom of that. But they have many, many reasons to be that unhappy.

The thing about Zimbabwe, the thing that makes it so tragic, the thing that sets it apart from other African tragedies - and I always think the tragedy is inversely proportional to a place's potential, if you know what I mean.

Zimbabwe was this, you know, great hope for Africa. It's got this tremendously educated population. It's not some sort of basket case. It has actually quite strong institutions, and civic society is very strong, a big middle class.

This is the one country in Africa where you would think you have all the underpinnings, all the pillars for real democracy, and yet it's now, if you look at the human development index, it scores lowest now. Out of 169 nations, it's the lowest.

GROSS: Why is it the lowest?

Mr. GODWIN: Well, it's the lowest - I mean, it wasn't always thus. It's collapsed in the last 11 years, and it's been - I mean, I'm told by economists that it's been the most precipitous contraction of any economy in peacetime that they've seen.

Basically starting in 2000, it went into this death spiral, and, I mean, it started with the invasion of commercial agriculture. But really what happened at that point was it triggered hyperinflation. So by 2008, for example, the Zimbabwe dollar was halving in value every 24 hours.

GROSS: Oh, geeze.

Mr. GODWIN: So basically you just couldn't hold money. I mean, hyperinflation was so bad, there was - you know, I wrote a slightly frivolous piece about how at the main golf club in Harare that the golfers would order and pay for their beers before they teed off because after 18 holes, when they came, the beers had doubled in price.

GROSS: Wow. Well, and meanwhile, the mortality rate was plummeting. You said that the average lifespan for a Zimbabwean went from 60 I think it's, what, 37.

Mr. GODWIN: Right. At its worst, it went down into the late 30s, and that was a sort of a lethal cocktail of HIV/AIDS on the one hand, of lack of nutrition, starvation to be frank, that at one point 70 percent of rural Zimbabweans were relying on a form of food aid.

So you had these Zimbabweans who were already, you know, very, very ill. When they got - if they got HIV/AIDs, they tended to die very quickly. And allied to that, a complete and utter collapse of the entire health care system.

I mean, in this book I write about - these torture victims are finally getting to hospitals to find that there's no electricity, there's no running water, there are no drugs, and the staff are all on strike. I mean, the hospitals, the health system basically came to a complete standstill.

So all of those things put together created a sort of perfect storm of health care crisis, and the longevity absolutely plummeted.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Peter Godwin. His new book is called "The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe." His family is from Zimbabwe. He grew up in what was then Rhodesia, when it was white-ruled. His parents stayed. He and his sister left.

So you went back to Zimbabwe in 2008, expecting to dance on the political grave of dictator Robert Mugabe. There was an election. You were confident that he had lost so much support that the election results would be clear-cut, he'd be voted out, and finally there'd be a new Zimbabwe.

But what happened instead was that the results were rigged, and Mugabe announced that his opponent hadn't passed the 50 percent threshold. Therefore, there had to be a runoff. And then what happened in the runoff?

Mr. GODWIN: Well, what happened was that even before they announced the runoff, there was this sort of weird, phony war period of weeks and weeks where Mugabe just refused to announce the results of that first election.

And in fact, what they were doing during that time was laying the groundwork for basically what was a campaign of torture on an industrial scale. They had...

GROSS: What does that mean?

Mr. GODWIN: Well, they had lists of the opposition party office-bearers right down to sort of village level. And they basically, they sent their own people out across the country and picked up the opposition members and took them into newly set-up torture bases, which ironically were mostly sited in the schools, which also had stopped operating.

And they tortured tens of thousands of people, basically. And it's quite interesting because they didn't kill thousands of people. They killed hundreds and hundreds of people, possibly more than 1,000, but they tortured vast numbers of people.

And then they released them back to their communities so that they were like - they acted like human billboards, that they were advertisements for what happens if you oppose the regime and they sort of set off these ripples of fear and anxiety back in their home communities.

GROSS: You visited hospitals were ward after ward, floor after floor housed torture victims. Did you see any patterns to the torture?

Mr. GODWIN: Absolutely. I mean, the one thing that makes me slightly crazy is whenever I read the word anarchy in the same sentence as Zimbabwe or Mugabe or, you know, the situation that pertains there.

Zimbabwe is many things, but anarchy is not one of them. The oppression and the abuses in Zimbabwe are hierarchical. They're planned. The orders come down from the top. This isn't Liberia or Sierra Leone. And you could see that in talking to these torture victims, that it got to the stage where, when I was interviewing them, I knew what they were going to say next because I had spoken to so many others and there was such a pattern. I mean, it was literally like a torture factory.

GROSS: What were some of the patterns that you saw?

Mr. GODWIN: So there were different sort of stages to it. When they were initially attacked in their homes, they were - that's where a lot of the actual murders took place. The homes would be burnt down. They were attacked with - by mobs bearing sticks, big rocks, machetes, axes, whatever they get a hold of.

If they resisted in any way, they were often - they were killed or very severely wounded. So for example, if you looked at the medical charts on the ends of the bed, I kept seeing the same acronym, which DW, DW, DW.

And I said to the doctor: What's that? And he said: Oh, it stands for defense wounds. He said: Those are the wounds that you get when you hold your arms up over your head to try and stave off blows of axes or machetes or logs or whatever, and they're sort of deep - often deep cuts, you know, right into the bone on the arms. And the arms are usually fractured.

GROSS: And that was the story of a 39-year-old man, Jonathan Malakita(ph), who was a campaign manager for the opposition party.

Mr. GODWIN: Right. His wounds were particularly bad. I mean, the nurse who was showing me round, who was a very, very experienced nurse and, you know, a matron and with decades of experience, said she'd never seen such a bad fracture as that one. And he - I looked at his X-ray, and it was - his arm was absolutely shattered.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Godwin, and he's the author of the new book "The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe." He's a journalist who's reported from about 60 different countries. He grew up in what was then Rhodesia and later became Zimbabwe. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is journalist Peter Godwin. His new book is his third book about Zimbabwe. It's called "The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe." Godwin grew up in Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe after white rule ended. And his parents remained there after he and his sister left the country.

One of the stories I found most just amazing in your book is you're at a little party, you're talking to a priest. You're telling him about the torture victims that you're seeing.

Then you realize the priest is actually Mugabe's spiritual advisor and personal chaplain. He's the head of the Jesuit Order in Zimbabwe. Then what? How did the conversation change once you realized who you were talking to?

Mr. GODWIN: Well, I was - initially I was torn because on the one hand, I wasn't supposed to be in Zimbabwe, and I didn't really want to blow my cover. But on the other hand, I just - I thought it was an opportunity that had been handed to me where I could - this was right at the beginning of the torture - where I could actually tell him what had been going on and, you know, and see if there was any way that he could intercede with Mugabe.

This is somebody who saw him often, who clearly had his ear. And so I sort of told him what was going on, and he was clearly embarrassed and trying to get rid of me at this party, and I just sort of clung to me.

And eventually, I made him promise to come to one of the hospitals -that I would show him round the next day. And of course, I never expected him to show. And I called him and called him and got no reply.

And - but I went to the agreed meeting place at this particular hospital the next day, and eventually he did turn up, and I walked him through the wards, you know, getting each person to tell their stories to him so that at least I then knew that he knew, and he knew that I knew he knew. And it was quite interesting watching him because by the end of it, you know, he looked absolutely kind of ashen. And I think at that point, he certainly hadn't quite realized the extent of it.

GROSS: Do you have any idea if he was changed by that experience, by bearing witness?

Mr. GODWIN: Well, he's a - you know, he's a very complex, subtle, sophisticated, intelligent man, head of the Jesuit Order there. I think there was a point in it where he had - I don't know what you'd call a reverse epiphany, but, you know, where he suddenly sort of exhaled and seemed to deflate. And I think he suddenly realized that there was no moral gray area here, that we had crossed this line into, you know, mass atrocities.

GROSS: Didn't part of you want to say to him: How can you be a man of God and not protest to the person who you are the spiritual advisor to, Robert Mugabe?

Mr. GODWIN: I mean, at the very end, when I said to him basically, you know: Is there something you can do? He did admit to me that he had less and less influence on Mugabe.

I mean, Mugabe was getting - had sort of fallen out of love with the Catholic Church. He was, after all, educated on a Catholic mission station himself and had been a lifelong Catholic. But since the Catholics had started to criticize him, he had fallen out of love with him, and this particular priest had less and less influence, he thought, and there were others, in particular the generals, who now, you know, had Mugabe's ear.

GROSS: When you invited this priest to meet you at one of the hospitals, did you ever think that a general would show up instead and arrest you?

Mr. GODWIN: I mean, I was always torn when I was there because on the one hand, I was - I mean, I wasn't supposed to be there, and...

GROSS: No, you're not supposed to be in the country, I mean, you were...

Mr. GODWIN: No, and all the foreign journalists had been kicked out, and several of them had been imprisoned before they'd been kicked out.

I have a very strange relationship with the place. I mean, when I go there, I don't pop up on, you know, CNN or something. I mean, I don't -I kept a very low profile and didn't do anything contemporaneously that would raise that profile.

Because I'm from there, it's much easier for me to sort of fit in and to look like I should look at not to sort of attract attention. I think in this particular case, I had met this priest before, and I think that he has been trying to ameliorate things but sort of from the inside. You know, there's a limit to...

So I did take a gamble, but I was just hoping that he wouldn't do that, that he wouldn't shock me.

GROSS: You know, I always wonder, with dictators like Mugabe, who are brutal, who torture their opponents, how do they live with themselves? How do you become so mad or so delusional or so uncomprehending of the pain that you are causing? Do you have any insight into that at all?

I don't know if you've ever met personally with Mugabe, but I know you know people who have been on his team, so to speak.

Mr. GODWIN: And I interviewed a number of the people who had worked very closely with him, including his sort of personal assistant and press secretary for many years, who was, you know, had a very intimate relationship with him and saw him first thing in the morning and briefed him and, you know, watched him in Cabinet and how he interacted with his own minister.

He's an interesting guy. He is very remote and aloof, and that's how he operates. That's his MO. He keeps all the people around him unsettled. They don't know whether they're in his good books or not.

He hardly, apart from the Cabinet meetings, he hardly ever meets his underlings in groups. He does these one-on-one sessions with them. And they all said the same thing, which is that he calls you in, and then you talk to him, and he says almost nothing.

He just sort of sits there, kind of, you know, interlaces his fingers and looks at you with sort of gimlet eyes. And you don't quite know what to do, and you don't know whether what you're saying is pleasing him or not pleasing him.

And so he's a very good - he's a manipulator of people. And he's a loner. He doesn't really have friends. And part of the problem is that in his first Cabinets, there were a whole lot of colleagues, people who were his equals, but they've all died or been fired or been god rid of.

Now he surrounds himself with people who owe him their jobs. So there's nobody really to tell him that the emperor has no clothes. There's nobody who would bring bad news to him.

Having said that, he reads the media to some extent. I mean, he knows the allegations against him. And I think that they have - you know, the thing about being a liberation leader is that it's very easy to become messianic. For example, if people vote against you, you can see him thinking: How can possibly vote against me? You wouldn't have a vote if it weren't for me and my party.

GROSS: I don't know whether this is - what I'm about to say is a lie on his part or pure delusion. But there was a cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe, and he blamed it on, quote, serious biological chemical war, a genocidal onslaught on the people of Zimbabwe by the British.

Cholera is a calculated, racist terrorist attack on Zimbabwe by the unrepentant former colonial power, which has enlisted support from its American and Western allies so that they can invade the country.

I mean, that's just crazy. Do you think he believes that or that he's delusional or that he's just trying to scare his people?

Mr. GODWIN: I think - I mean, I think that has to have been politicking. I can't believe that he really thought that. I mean, maybe he did for a little. I would - I mean, he's an intelligent man. I can't believe that he actually thought that.

And that cholera epidemic, which is utterly avoidable and killed many, many people and sickened a lot more, there's a pattern here of not wanting to take responsibility for any of his own failures in leadership, basically. He's immune to criticism.

And he reacts almost - you know, emotionally, he seems to react almost like an aggrieved adolescent. Nothing is ever his fault, you know. He doesn't want to take blame for anything. He's been in power for 30 years now, you know. I mean, most of what's going on in the country has happened on his watch.

GROSS: My guest, Peter Godwin, will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross, back with journalist Peter Godwin. He grew up in Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe in 1980, after the end of white rule. He was already living in England then. His parents remained in Zimbabwe. Godwin has written his third book about the country. It's called The Fear and its about the torture campaign that President Robert Mugabe launched to scare anyone from voting against him after he lost a 2008 election and called for a runoff.

At the age of 87, Mugabe is now the world's oldest leader. He's been in power since 1980, when he was elected Zimbabwe's first prime minister.

Whats it been like for you to watch Libya, where NATO - first American - now NATO is, you know, enforcing a no-fly zone and trying to protect Libyans from the armed forces of Gadhafi something that the West hasn't done in Zimbabwe?

Mr. GODWIN: Very frustrating. I mean been very frustrating. I understand, I mean Libya is a complicated situation and in a sense, as President Obama has said, you know, there was a sort of coincidence of opportunity of a humanitarian situation. I mean, it was doable. There was a practical moment where you could go in physically to protect Benghazi and that side of the country. In Zimbabwe, there's never really been that moment. But there are other points of departure here to which are important to bear in mind.

One is that I can't help thinking that a reason that nobody talks about intervening in Zimbabwe is that it's not considered strategic. So it lacks the two, sort of, trigger exports that would gain an intervention, and those exports are oil and international terrorism. It doesn't export either of those two things that tend to kind of attract Western intervention.

The other real problem is that South Africa, the government in Pretoria has protected Mugabe from a ratcheting up of international pressure, that he's basic that Pretoria has basically insured his longevity in power. And that's one of our big problems, is that by appointing South African presidents as the sort of referee in Zimbabwe, we've actually protected Mugabe because the referee is, in this case, is partisan.

GROSS: Why would the president of South Africa want to protect Mugabe?

Mr. GODWIN: Well, it's interesting. I mean and even going back to President Bush, who said Thabo Mbeki, who was then the South African president, was his point man on Zimbabwe, and that was an easy handoff. You handed it off to South Africa and then you could get on with other things. And to some extent that's continued under the Obama administration.

Systemically, I think that why - that Pretoria supports Mugabe, and more importantly, not just Mugabe but his party Zanu-PF. I think from talking to people in South Africa and the administration what they had originally hoped, was that they might pressure Zanu-PF to reform, to become a sort of Zanu-PF light and to maybe get a technocrat, someone like Simba Makoni or one of these other guys who don't actually have blood on their hands, to take it over.

The reason they don't want to see the opposition winning, the MDC winning in Zimbabwe, is if you look at the southern African countries that all fought liberation wars, anti-colonial wars, those original parties, those liberation parties are all still in power - the ANC in South Africa, Swapo in Namibia, the MPLA in Angola, Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe and the Frelimo in Mozambique; they're all still in power. And it's not in any of their interests for any one of them to lose power, because it's a terrible precedent. It sort of shatters the myth of the sort of aura of liberation invincibility.

GROSS: Of the original freedom leaders, the original anti-colonialists...

Mr. GODWIN: Absolutely. I mean it's a very, very potent well that you can dip your bucket in and pull out this sort of, you know, this history. It's very potent and it can kind of re-anointed you, you know, for decade after decade.

GROSS: But that generation is dead or dying. Mugabe himself is 87. He cannot possibly rule much longer.

Mr. GODWIN: Well, and I mean which brings us to the next point. Absolutely. I mean hes 87. He's in very good fettle for an 87-year-old. But even he is not immortal. And he's just been reappointed as the head of his party's Zanu-PF, which means that he will go ahead and stand again as president in the forthcoming elections, which are expected later this year or perhaps early next year. So it becomes very likely that he will die in office, and he's very - he's proved very resistant to nominating a successor. In fact, he goes out of his way to destabilize anybody in his own party who's talked about, openly, as a pretender to the throne.

GROSS: So you have no guess what happens next?

Mr. GODWIN: Well, it's, you know, here's the thing, you've got this guy who has sucked all the political oxygen out of the room. Hes been -he's totally dominated the national and even the regional stage for more than 30 years. So, you know, when he suddenly disappears there's going to be a huge vacuum in that space he used to occupy. So it's very - I mean it is difficult to speculate. I mean there are a number of possibilities.

One is that, you know, someone within his party - I mean there are several successors, potential successors who are talked about - will just step into his shoes. The problem is that the main shoes that are talked about are just as bad, and in fact, have done a lot of, you know, the violence on their own people at his behest. So, you know, the thing is that if the Wests strategy towards Zimbabwe is lets wait till Mugabe dies, that's not a coherent strategy at all because things could get a lot worse when he dies. There could also be a conflict between various potential successors within his own party. I mean it could even be an armed conflict or there could be some civil disorder if the opposition tries to use his death as an opportunity to step into that vacuum.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Peter Godwin. His new book is called The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe.

Well talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is journalist Peter Godwin. And hes written a new book called The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe. Godwin grew up in Rhodesia, which was white ruled and when white rule ended it became Zimbabwe. And ever since then Robert Mugabe has been the president, and for most of that time he's been quite a brutal dictator. This is Godwin's third book about Zimbabwe.

When Robert Mugabe first became president he urged white people to stay. White people were used to white rule. They were afraid of anything but. He urged them to stay. Your parents stayed. But eventually Mugabe confiscated white-owned farms, about 4500 of them. That was in the early 2000s?

Mr. GODWIN: Yeah, it started in 2000. The farm situation is really has been a very difficult story to cover, because in many respects Mugabe has proved an absolute master at spin - at manipulating that story. The great thing about that story for him is that the up ticks work in his favor because he's writing a historic wrongs, that you have a few white landowners owning a disproportionate amount of land, these things are all true. However, I mean you just mentioned this, that in 1980 bear in mind, we were coming out of seven years of war and the country was exhausted. Mugabe wasn't expected to win those elections. The Brits thought Bishop Muzorewa and more moderate pliable leaders would come in, instead, they didn't.

Mugabe came in, and at that point, he was thought to be a communist. He was thought to be embark on racial vendettas, and he didn't. He proved remarkably moderate in pretty much everything. He didn't nationalize industries. He wasn't pro-Eastern. He turned out to be pro-Western. And for the white people in Zimbabwe, most importantly, he gave this amazing reconciliation speech, in which he very specifically said to the white farmers, dont flee - because a lot of them were getting ready, they were packing their bags and getting ready to go. He said don't flee, rather stay. If you want to contribute tribute to the new Zimbabwe then this is how you do it, you stay on your farms and you make them into efficient productive resources that would feed the nation and the region, and so they did.

GROSS: Did the confiscation of white-owned farms add to the problem of Zimbabweans being officially rated as the unhappiest people in the world? And I ask this because you say that, after the farms were confiscated, a lot of them were just kind of given over as favors to some of Mugabe's cronies and they didn't have any agricultural experience, they didn't farm it and there's a real shortage of food in the country.

Mr. GODWIN: Absolutely. I mean the beginning of inflation happened just before that. But certainly, Zimbabwe doesn't have, you know, its not a mono-resource economy, it doesn't have oil or whatever. It's a mixed economy. But commercial agriculture was the foundation of it. And it wasn't just the farms themselves, it was all the allied industries and services that were, you know, circled around it, and all of those were shattered. In the problem was that it was done with maximum chaos. It was completely, you know, that actually was sort of anarchic, except it was they would do it under police and military protection, a lot of the people who came in.

And the land didn't go to the peasants by and large. Some of it did. Most of it went to Mugabe's cronies and, you know, a number of whom have racked up multiple farms themselves. And quite a few just didn't farm. They used them as a kind of, you know, weekend places. And that did trigger this, sort of, nosedive of the rest of the economy.

GROSS: I'd like to hear little bit about your mother. She sounds like a really remarkable woman. And she was alive when you were writing the book. Is she still?

Mr. GODWIN: My mother is still alive.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. GODWIN: She lives in London at the moment with my sister and she's a formidable woman. She was very tough-minded and she is an inspiration to me. I mean she worked for decades and decades in very poor rural areas with...

GROSS: In Zimbabwe...

Mr. GODWIN: In Zimbabwe. Started out on the eastern border with Mozambique where she was the only doctor for thousands of square miles, and she was a terrific doctor. I mean she wasnt...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GODWIN: She wasnt, it has to be said, a great mother as so far as we were more or less left to our own devices. But she - and when I look back, I mean as I wrote in Mukiwa, when I look back at - through the lens of having children myself at what we got up to in our lack of supervision it's enough to turn your hair white.

GROSS: Now you say that the health care system that she dedicated her life to building lies shattered. What happened?

Mr. GODWIN: Well, essentially, I mean when the economy went into freefall one of the problems with it was that hyperinflation meant that civil servants salaries, including doctors and nurses and government hospitals, just sort of, you know, were rendered worthless. And so they were inevitably asking for more money, which the government didn't have and eventually they stopped working. They went on a series of strikes and go slows, and one thing, and then stop working. And many, many of them left the country. I mean there has been this huge exodus from Zimbabwe. You go to hospitals, national health hospitals in England, for example, and it sometimes seems to me that every second or third nurse or nursing aide or radiologist or, you know, is a black Zimbabwean. I mean, when my sister was admitted to hospital there she sort of had these huge kind of meetings, political meetings with vast numbers of Zimbabwean staff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GODWIN: And this is in Hampstead, in North London.

GROSS: So, an odd and sad story that I think illustrates how Zimbabwe doesn't really have much in way of resources now. When your father died, he wanted to be cremated, you wanted to cremate him and there was no butane gas in any of the cemeteries to cremate him. So explain what you did.

Mr. GODWIN: As he was dying, he did ask me for one thing, and that was that he wanted to be cremated. And it was, I was so preoccupied organizing the funeral, which logistically was quite a challenge in Zimbabwe at that stage, where nobody had fuel to get there and we were trying to lay on a kind of little tea afterwards and we couldn't find any flour to make the cakes and it was just, my mother was getting very fed up about all that aspect thing. And then, suddenly, after the funeral, I thought gosh, I need to just, you know, I need to make a booking at the crematorium, and phoned up the crematorium and they said, no, no, we don't have any gas - any butane - we haven't had it for weeks and weeks, months, in fact.

And then I tried the other crematorium in other cities in two other cities and it was the same thing. And then what happened was that the morticians, the place where his body was being stored, they called me up and Harare had been without power for some time. You have these very big blackouts. And they phoned me up to say that weve been without power for several days and their backup diesel generator had now run out of diesel and they didn't have any more diesel, and so their refrigerators were warming up and I would - had to take my father's body in the next day or otherwise it will be taken and dumped in a mass grave, in a pauper's grave, outside of town because it would be a health hazard.

So I then...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GODWIN: ...ran around desperately trying to, you know, think of a plan B and phoned the Hindu Society and asked them if I would be allowed to burn his body myself on a funeral pyre. Well, in fact, originally I thought that they might do it. And they said no, no, no. They said eventually, that I could do it, but as the eldest son, I would have to be the person who actually did it. So we built a huge funeral pyre and the undertakers delivered the body there. And we put them on top and I lit it and it burned for, basically, for 24 hours and that's how we cremated him.

GROSS: Wow. What was that experience like for you?

Mr. GODWIN: Very...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GODWIN: Very bizarre. I mean I, you know - and the body was delivered in a white, you know, winding sheet, it was bound up. And actually, building a pyre is quite a skill. You just don't dump a whole lot of wood in a pile. You have different kinds of wood that burns at different rates and you kind of, you put, you know, theres a skill to doing it and there were several gravediggers and assistants there, a couple of guys who knew how to do it and helped me do it. And the body doesn't just burn quickly and it certainly - you don't get powder like you do in a professional crematorium when youre given that little urn at the end and it just looks like, sort of, gray powder.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GODWIN: Let me tell you, the femur doesn't burned down to powder like that. I mean its very - it's gruesome. And yet there was something very, kind of, moving about that. I mean it was the most extraordinary experience. It's hard to explain. I mean, I felt both that there was something - initially I thought there was something - going to be something grotesque about it. But actually, in the end, it seemed to sum up everything. It was so singular and so - and I could imagine my father kind of, you know, would've got a kick out of it.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Peter Godwin. His new book is called The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe.

Well talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is journalist Peter Godwin. His new book is called The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe. He grew up in Rhodesia when Rhodesia was white ruled, it became Zimbabwe afterwards and his parents stayed in Zimbabwe. He and his sister left. This is his third book about Zimbabwe.

So let me ask you more about your father. You just told us the story of his death and cremation. You learned late in his life, because he revealed to you late in his life, that he had a different name and a different religion than he had told you - that his name was different and he was born Jewish, as opposed to Episcopalian. And he grew up in Poland and left, I think, it was in 1939?

Mr. GODWIN: Yes. My father, I mean growing up my father was frankly this quintessential Brit colonial, striding around the bush in a safari suit and desert boots with a walrus mustache and a sort of clicked Brit accent - and that's who he was. And it was only really in the last two years of his life, I mean he had a heart attack and then recovered from it. And on his recovery, he put up this photograph of a young middle-aged couple and their daughter - looked to be about 11, and there with three people I'd never seen before. And they were, in fact, his parents and his sister. And it turned out - I mean he then started to tell me this story, the secret he kept from me his whole life, that in fact he wasn't British, that Godwin wasnt his surname and that these people -his parents and sister, his mother and sister - had been killed in the Holocaust at Treblinka.

And what had happened was they were living in Warsaw. They were a well-off secular Jewish family. And when he was about 15, 14 or 15, his father decided that English was going to be the new international language of commerce and sent him to a summer school in England to learn English, a sort of residential summer school. And off he went and it was the summer of 1939. On the 1st of September, Hitler invaded Poland and my father couldn't get back and his family couldn't get out. And he never got back. He never saw them again, they didn't get out. And so he joined the Free Polish Army and fought through, you know, after D-Day and everything.

And after the war he met my mother, who was English from quite a sort of posh family and they met at university in London. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GODWIN: ...her mother her father was dead by this stage - her mother then when she realized that my mother wanted to get engaged to a Jew, sort of banished and disinherited my mother because she was anti-Semitic. So the two of them just decided they'd had it with Europe and they, my father changed his name to my mother's - the sort of the name that used to be in my mother's family. So Godwin is a family name, but from my mother's side, and they emigrated to Africa as their sort of, in those days, great sanctuary. And that's I think one of the reasons that my father was so determined not to leave, because Africa to him was this new home. It was this refuge.

GROSS: Why do you think he hid the fact that he was Jewish, or at least he grew up Jewish?

Mr. GODWIN: You know, I think this is quite a common thing amongst Holocaust survivors and people who are, you know, who are from families that were affected by the Holocaust. I think when you've seen something like that and when you put it in the context of these great cycles, these waves of anti-Semitism across the centuries, in Europe, that sometimes you just think this is never really truly going to go away. It goes underground for generations at a time, but somehow it's sort of atavistic, it comes back out. I think he did it to protect us. I don't think it was a social thing. He didn't, you know, want to get into the country club or anything. I think it was about security.

GROSS: Did it change your identity to know that your father was Jewish?

Mr. GODWIN: My identity is so screwed up at this point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GODWIN: I don't know who I am. I mean, you know, it's just, its interesting from, you know, being a writer it's quite interesting, because I feel like the more that you don't belong to anything in particular that the more advantageous it is as a writer. Because you're sort of youre on the periphery as a writer, anyway, you're on the margins looking in at something and sort of, you know, being an observer.

And, you know - and it was funny because my sister and I were talking about it, you know, try to make sense of it afterwards, saying, you know, how do we process it and what we feel about it and whatever. And she said something which I think sums it up for us. She said she felt like it must feel to hear, for the first time as an adult, that you were adopted. In other words, your life as you've lived it, doesn't change. You've still lived the same life, but your perspective on it changes. Your point of view, changes. And it sort of affects everything. Everything moves a few degrees. And it's a very, very complicated thing to discover.

GROSS: So, finally, getting back to your book for moment, The Fear, about Zimbabwe. Your book bears witness to the torture that Mugabe was responsible for after the 2008 elections, when he wanted to win, he hadn't won, he called for a runoff, and he wanted to instill fear in everyone who would vote against him, to warn them not to vote against him. So, you went to hospitals, you saw torture victims, you interviewed them. And that's what the book is about. Having done your job in bearing witness, now what response would you like to see?

Mr. GODWIN: Well, you know, the main thing for me was that by banning Western journalists and by generally making it hard to report and making it very hard to access, and also terrifying a lot of the victims, Mugabe had managed to kind of smother the story. The Zimbabwe story, the story of these atrocities and these human rights abuse, is not nearly well enough known as it should be. And there's been reporting - I mean, I'm not criticizing the report. There has been reporting, but it has been in sort of bits and pieces and it hasn't really lifted up to the level of a kind, you know, a joined up narrative.

And I think that the stories that these people tell and Id, you know, I'd hate you think that this book is just a catalog of, you know, symptoms of torture. You know, the actual descriptions of torture don't take up very much space. But the peoples stories, themselves, I found utterly inspirational. And I felt sort of ashamed, in a away, for not doing more. And for me, I think that the first important step - and this may sound facile - but the first important step is for people to get interested in it, is just to follow it and to be aware of it, because everything else flows from that. You know, we're a democracy in this country. We can affect foreign policy of our country by, you know, by talking to lawmakers and by making this an issue that we care about.

GROSS: You know, I was reading an article in The New York Times the other day, about how a lot of people aren't really following the Libya story because they feel like they've run out of time to follow another story. There's been so many wars and the tsunami and the nuclear meltdowns and the problems in the United States, and that there's just, there's no more room, there's no more time to take on another issue -and Zimbabwe would even come after that, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Do you ever feel like your country is in competition with other African countries in terms of getting the attention of the West?

Mr. GODWIN: God, yes. It's like a reverse beauty pageant, you know, can...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GODWIN: ...our country the more grotesque than yours? And in the book I've said that, you know, in the kind of abuse Olympics we only get the bronze medal in Africa.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GODWIN: Because, you know, at that point, you know, Congo and Darfur were ahead of us in body counts in all sorts of ways. No, absolutely. And my wife, who works in the magazine industry, she said to me, she said, what you need is a celebrity. She said we need a celebrity for Zimbabwe. That's why nobody cares about Zimbabwe. You have to sign up some celebrities. That's the only way it works these days.

GROSS: Well, Peter Godwin, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. GODWIN: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Peter Godwin is the author of the new book The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download Podcasts of our show.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

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