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[OPINION] Zimbabwe’s just about reached the point of no return

Vile. Horrendous, Heart-breaking. Sickening.

There are no words.

Twitter in Zimbabwe was rebooted with a jolt on Friday afternoon, even if you did need a VPN to access it. And then the stories started popping up. The pictures. The smashed-up living room where thugs have rampaged. The elderly mother of a rights defender who was taken in by police instead of her son.

And from the few brave Zimbabwean twitterati came the videos. The man clutching his knees as he's being beaten (by someone in plainclothes). The leafy suburb that looked to be in Norton, 40 kilometres from Harare, where a gang of soldiers roamed, terrorising a man on the streets. Behind a concrete wall, a person tries to keep on filming.

Of course, not all of these videos have been verified. That’ll be a task for the next few days and weeks.
But the scale of the reports, the sheer damning flood of them, the reports without pictures, the offline convos with just about everyone you talk to in Zimbabwe: that points to something that can’t be ignored. There cannot be an army of fake news creators sitting somewhere pushing all these shaky Zimbabwe horror videos out.

The thing is, we’ve seen this before in Zimbabwe, just not in such detail, and not on our phones. The horrors of 2008, the military clampdown in the Chiadzwa diamond fields in the same year, the “slum” clearances in 2005. They happened before Zimbabweans all had smartphones. Before we could video and photograph and show the world, however crudely.

Scrolling through our Twitter feeds, people are already asking questions. Is this week’s violence worse than THAT violence 10-plus years ago? After all, the violence has come into the towns now too: in 2008 it was largely confined to the rural areas. Or is it marginally less bad, since as far as we know, the death toll so far (at least 12) is lower?

Let’s not play down things by comparing. What we’re seeing now looks irredeemably awful, just as the events of 2008 were. And as in 2008, it’s not just soldiers we’re dealing with, terrifying as they are. We’re seeing again the resurgence of gangs. The men in pick-ups and unmarked limousines who we hoped had melted away with the New Dispensation, along with the bad old days of the Mugabe regime.

This is not the fruit of unity and hope. This is not what Emmerson Mnangagwa promised when he took over after those jubilant scenes in 2017. Is he in control? Did he order this? Can he stop it? What’s he going to say, when he finally gets back from Davos?

Here’s the thing: nothing the Zimbabwe president can say will make this any better. Somehow, under Mnangagwa and whatever good and positive signs he’s said before, Zimbabwe’s just about reached the point of no return.

As one Zimbabwe Twitter user said on Saturday: “I can't describe the pain and despair in our hearts. Zimbabwe is hopeless.”

Oliver Matthews is a freelance reporter based in Zimbabwe.

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