It began as an innocent trip across the border to pay school fees in Zimbabwe, and ended with arrest and torture. Botswana journalist and www.journalism.co.za correspondent Nomsa Ndlovu describes her ordeal at the hands of the Zimbabwe police who accused her of wearing illegal camouflage and being an agent for the BBC or other news organisation.
Nomsa Ndlovu writes:
Tear like flowed like rivers as I sat on a chair, their eyes like the cameras of the big brother house all around me.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œTell us who your boss is? Are you a BBC World or CNN agent?ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â said one of them, a woman in a royal blue Zimbabwean Republic Police uniform, holding my passport and perusing through its pages.
Partly cloudy and hot as it was, I could feel a chill running through my body as goose pimples roughened my skin like that of a gecko. Saliva dried as I fumbled for words and mumbled a no amid prayer that this could just be one of those dreams where you wake up, pinch yourself and find that everything is not real.
But that was just the beginning of my ordeal.
Another cop, one of four men in civilian clothes, came forward, bent over and ridiculed me about wasting my tears. He whispered that I was going to be sent into a cell until I appeared in court on Wednesday. No sooner had he finished speaking than another burst out laughing stating that had the CNN cameraman been present I would have made a wonderful picture.
I wondered where Botho, one of the aspects that once uplifted Zimbabwe to the status of being jewel of Africa, had gone to. This is the country in which I proudly acquired my education years back. The 15 years of schooling there paved my path to the proud journalist that I am. Today I have become the enemy of the country, a suspect and a spy and I learn with shock from the cops that every scribe must make a special application to enter the country, whether on duty or not.
It all began on a Sunday morning. We were leaving the country through the Plumtree border gate back home to Botswana. Usually, thereÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s just a security guard asking for gate passes. But this time, a female cop told us to file out of the combi, passports and bags ready. A search was performed and the queue snaked forward until my turn came. I was told to stand aside.
Heart beating and knees turning to jelly, I left the queue as other passengers fixed their inquisitive eyes on me. Little did I know that the camouflage pants was wearing were prohibited in Zimbabwe. After the search, I was asked I had left anything inside the combi. Also that I was under arrest.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œMadam, wearing a camouflage or any material similar in colour to that of the army is a serious offence. Its penalty is similar to that of manslaughter. We are going to keep you here until you are taken to the police.ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â Silently I lifted my eyes and looked at Botswana, less than a kilometer from where I stood. I thought of the democracy that prevails there. I thought of the kgotla system where communities – unlike in any other state in Southern Africa ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Å“ present their problems to the head of state and consult with the president without any hindrance.
There is still freedom of speech here, gape mmualebe o bua la gagwe. I visualized my brothers and sisters whose love and marvel for the army has seen them in shops buying camouflage and parading in the streets without anyone pointing a finger of accusation. Had it been Zimbabwe, would journalists have been allowed to mingle with the army during activities like the Matsubutsubu and the Airborne Africa?
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œWoman, IÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢m speaking to you,ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â a cop in plain clothes shouted as I returned from wonderland to pay attention.
The female police officer who was busy searching my handbag had handed him my passport and told others that I am a journalist so I was being asked whether I applied for permission to practice in the country. She also discovered that I have a digital camera and she is scrolling through the pictures I took.
One picture shows a Dzoroga man who died on the spot during a car accident that happened before our eyes on Saturday, at a place close to Nata Sanctuary. His son was also in the picture, bleeding from the mouth and nostrils.
They did not believe my account because the car was not in the picture. IsnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢t it one of our journalistic codes of ethics that when we come across accidents we should assist the victims first before taking pictures? We had removed the victims from the car and laid them far away from it as we waited for the police to come.
But now the cops suspected that I entered into Zimbabwe to join forces with opposition party leader Morgan TsvangiraiÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s people to kill ruling party supporters. They thought I might be an agent of the foreign media: I had taken the picture so that I could write a negative story about the country and sell it to them.
Tears still flowing, I begged for forgiveness and told them I was not aware of the laws of the country since I do not stay there. I was told that ignorance of the law is not an excuse.
After hours of being confined at the border post I was taken to Plumtree police station where further interrogation took place. I had no information to give them because I entered Zimbabwe to pay school fees for an adopted son that attends school there.
Another suspicion arose from the money in my handbag: P5700. They acused me of getting the money from my secret handlers to carry out my mission.
With angry faces, they told me that the time for jokes was over. I was ordered to sit on a chair and put my fingers on electric wires. They switched on the plug and the current sent me thundering to the floor on my back. The torture was repeated.
"Tell us who your bosses areÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â, I heard them say while pain and numbness flowed from my hand down the left side of my body. I felt paralysed. At round 8pm, they locked me in the room to take a break. They told me they are giving me time to decide whether I should tell them the truth or not.
I rose from the floor and head for the door where I listened to their movement until I was convinced they were far away. Then I pulled out my mobile phone from inside my tights.
I leapt with joy to discover that there was Botswana cellular phone network coverage in Plumtree. On silent, I sent messages to family, friends and colleagues. I believe that word spread like wildfire because as I was sitting in the cell with others next day, a Zimbabwean lawyer came in to tell me that someone in Botswana had instructed him to secure my release.
He asked for sum of P500, explaining that P200 is for his service and the remaining amount goes to the cops. As I marched out of the cell I was not given a receipt or told that I would have to appear in court on Wednesday as previously claimed.
Had he paid them a bribe, I asked myself? But who cares, because after a whole night of listening to stories from cellmates and watching to what happens to those suspected to be a risk to national security on television, to me regaining my freedom is more than anything else.