Zimbabwean Doctor, Rights Activist Sees His Nation in a Free Fall

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 24, 2007

Douglas Gwatidzo, a shy general practitioner who specializes in emergency care at a clinic in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, spoke uneasily about politics in his country. But he expressed deep empathy for Zimbabweans crushed by an economic free fall and the tightening grip of President Robert Mugabe.

Gwatidzo, chairman of the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights, addressed the Congressional Human Rights Caucus yesterday about a wave of violence in Zimbabwe that began March 11 when a political rally was violently broken up by police.

When he first learned of the crackdown, Gwatidzo said, he expected patients to begin streaming into his clinic that day, a Sunday. But it was not until two days later, Tuesday afternoon, that 64 bloodied protesters, including opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, came to the Avenues Clinic where he practices.

Each patient was guarded by two armed riot police officers, Gwatidzo said, and they insisted on entering the cubicle where Tsvangirai was being treated. "They were very aggressive and threatening, and demanded to be present during medical examination," Gwatidzo recalled.

But the doctor said no. "I will not examine any patient under duress," he told them. "If you truly believe he can disappear, you can take me instead."

The police relented, though tensions at the clinic remained high as more than 133 policemen carrying batons, pistols and shields packed an emergency room filled with the battered protesters.

Gwatidzo described the injuries: severe blunt-force trauma to the abdomen, ruptured bowel, fractures and extensive wounds from blows to the back, shoulders, buttocks and thighs. Twenty people were admitted to the hospital.

Tsvangirai, 55, had a long gash in his scalp and was delirious from loss of blood, Gwatidzo said.

Another activist, Grace Kwinje, 33, had deep lacerations and a torn right earlobe. Sekai Holland, 64, suffered multiple fractures from the beatings. The two opposition party members were later detained briefly at Harare airport, though bandaged and on stretchers, as they attempted to leave for treatment in South Africa.

The crisis had started in Highfield, a poor township near Harare where Mugabe's ruling party was founded in 1963 as an anti-colonial liberation movement. Police had cordoned off the area where residents, street traders and produce peddlers had come to gather.

As people arrived in the area for the political rally, they were rounded up and dragged off to police stations. When Tsvangirai, president of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, followed them to inquire about the condition of his supporters, he was hurled to the floor and beaten. Truncheons, rubber batons and booted feet were the weapons of choice, Gwatidzo said.

The beatings have brought international criticism. But Mugabe has vowed to fight any Western attempt to force him out of office.

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