NAIROBI — It was midnight when soldiers threatened to burn Jennifer Mutobaya and her three teenage sons alive inside their home in the Zimbabwean town of Kadoma. Protesters had filled the streets earlier, chanting slogans and burning tires, joining a display of fury at a hike in fuel prices that is part of a broader economic collapse in this southern African country.
The scene at her home was one repeated hundreds of times across Zimbabwe over the past week as security forces launched their biggest crackdown on dissent in years.
“They took away my two sons and ordered them to clear the road that was barricaded with burning tires using their bare hands,” said Mutobaya, who is a street vendor. “I tried to intervene, and they beat me with an electric cable.”
Elvis, a carpenter in the Highfields neighborhood of the capital, Harare, is covered in scars after a similar raid.
“They beat me and my wife with a sjambok in front of our kids, saying we were part of the riots,” he said. A sjambok is a whip usually made of leather. The soldiers, armed with automatic rifles, then made him roll in mud.
He asked that his last name not be used for fear of reprisals.
The door-to-door operation has led to 12 deaths, 78 gunshot wounds, hundreds of instances of assault or torture, and enough arrests to fill prisons beyond capacity, according to the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, an umbrella organization that compiles reports from observers across the country.
It comes in response to unrest and a call for a nationwide “shutdown” provoked by a government-implemented 150 percent price hike on fuel. Faith in the government of Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was cheered when he deposed longtime leader Robert Mugabe in 2017, is quickly dwindling. The potential for further unrest and the widespread reports of looting that have accompanied the protests will only plunge Zimbabwe into deeper economic misery.
Zimbabwe’s president raised fuel prices above $12 a gallon and then jetted off to Russia. Deadly chaos ensued.
Mnangagwa left the country as soon as he announced the new fuel prices, embarking on a string of state visits to Russia and former Soviet states. He left a deputy known for his heavy hand, former army commander Constantino Chiwenga, in charge.
“Leaving after such an announcement, which he knew would be like lighting a match to gas — it’s hard not to question his judgment,” said Piers Pigou, a southern African analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Zimbabwe’s police and army held a joint news conference Saturday in which they chalked up the crackdown to thieves who had stolen uniforms from security forces. And the ruling party’s chairman blamed the protests on the main opposition party’s “terrorist agenda.”
George Charamba, a government spokesman, addressed the protesters from a stop in Azerbaijan, where he was traveling with Mnangagwa.
“The response so far is just a foretaste of things to come,” he said. Mnangagwa was in Kazakhstan on an official state visit on Monday but canceled plans to attend the annual economic summit in Davos, Switzerland, so he could return to Zimbabwe.
A spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change, the opposition party, said five of its members of parliament were under arrest and four others were unaccounted for.
Mnangagwa was elected president in a contested election last July. He promised to return foreign investment to Zimbabwe, which had spent more than a decade under broad international sanctions because of Mugabe’s repressive rule.
But he has been slow in weeding out the corruption that dissuades many investors from entering the Zimbabwean market, and his failure to attract foreign currency has contributed to the economy’s continued slide.
The country does not have a currency of its own, and much of people’s money is locked up in accounts that have no foreign reserves to back them. Inflation is spiraling upward, and new price stickers are printed every day, triggering shortages of everything from cooking oil to medicine and decimating people’s savings.
“There’s a general agreement that Zimbabwe has a potential to rebound relatively quickly,” Pigou said. “But also a growing understanding that it’s the predatory political structure that pollutes the economic arena.”
Soldiers last came onto Zimbabwean streets on Aug. 1, right after the election, in response to pro-opposition protests that turned into riots in downtown Harare. Six were killed.
The much broader ongoing crackdown has terrified many Zimbabweans and left them wondering who is in charge of their government.
“The big question is: Do we have a slow coup unfolding again?” asked Frances Lovemore, who directs the Counseling Services Unit, an organization that treats victims of organized violence.
“There’s clearly a huge amount of tension within the military and the ruling party about how to respond,” she said. “Meanwhile, everyone is scared of even leaving their houses. Activists and opposition leaders are in hiding because they are being charged with treason. People are being arrested, tried and sentenced within 24 hours, which is unheard of.”
South Africa, which neighbors Zimbabwe and has long played an outsize role in its affairs, has been largely quiet on the unrest. In the past, South Africa has lent large amounts of money to the Zimbabwean government to ease economic turmoil. Millions of economic migrants from Zimbabwe live in South Africa.
The Zimbabwean government has blacked out Internet access in most of the country since the beginning of the protests. Charamba, the government spokesman, said it was to prevent coordinated violence by protesters, while critics of the government say it is to prevent evidence of its atrocities from emerging.
Lawyers in Harare are having trouble keeping pace with the sweeping arrests that are filling up prisons. Beatrice Mtetwa, one of the country’s most-renowned human rights lawyers, said all judges that she knew of were refusing to hear bail applications, apparently on orders. In front of reporters Sunday, she wondered aloud if she shouldn’t just quit.
“Our presence makes it look like there is actually rule of law in Zimbabwe,” she said, “when everything that is happening shows that there is an orchestrated, deliberate attempt to deny anyone associated with the shutdown their basic rights.”
Prosper Tatenda in Zimbabwe contributed to this report.