A country’s decision to seek revenge or reconcile with a turbulent past is a subject so vast that sometimes people forget to ask the victims, says Peter Godwin, a former foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times and author of The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe.

Speaking at the Maldives Hay Festival, held recently on the Presidential Retreat of Aarah, Godwin spoke about his own upbringing in Zimbabwe as “a white kid in black Africa”, and the country’s descent into dictatorship under President Robert Mugabe.

Godwin grew up in a remote corner of the country, then white-ruled, where his mother worked as a district doctor and often travelled to tribal areas.

“It was a very strange existence. We lived a culturally schizophrenic life – we were living in tropical Africa but would still send Christmas cards with holly and snowmen that we had never seen. It must have been the same for the last of the Anglo-Indians, where you have this other culture over the sea which you are increasingly distant from but yet you are not indigenous to that place.”

With an average lifespan of just 36 years old, people lived in a way that was much more immediate, Godwin noticed later, after having lived in the UK, “as perhaps you do when you don’t have the expectation that you’re going to live for a long time.”

“It struck me that in a city like London the weight of history was palpable – you are surrounded by huge old buildings and statues carrying this great weight of history. People live through the lense of that history – in Africa it was as if people were living much more lightly, without that sense of retrospective.”

In his late teens Godwin was conscripted to fight in Zimbabwe’s emerging war for independence – “fighting on the wrong side of a losing war,” as he describes it.

“By weird coincidence the first white person killed in that war was our next-door neighbour. He was ambushed by one of the first guerrilla attacks in the early 1960s – my mother was the attending doctor.”

Boys were conscripted but you could get a pass to delay your service for university. In was common among the small number of liberal white families to go to university abroad and not come back, Godwin explains, as sit out the war elsewhere.

“That was what I intended to do, but during my last year of school they changed the law and I found myself conscripted in a shooting war.”

It was a “very strange” experience to find oneself in combat, he says. “It’s very difficult to describe what it is like to anyone who hasn’t been through that training. You spend 4-5 months training very intensively with the expectation that you going to a war, so when you finally do it feels completely normal by that stage.

“You become a ‘technician’ of war. You see it when soldiers are interviewed in places like Afghanistan. They are almost disappointed if they don’t see action. Training without going to war is like endlessly rehearsing a play, but never being able to put it on.”

Eventually Godwin was given leave by the army to attend university at Cambridge in the UK.

“It was a very sudden decision,” he says. “I arrived to do law at Cambridge literally shell-shocked, having been in combat that week. I arrived feeling like a bushboy, having not really read a book for years. I remember wondering how I was going to survive socially and intellectually, surrounded by all these English who seemed very bright, educated and articulate. I felt antediluvian by comparison.”

Life became harder when UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher came to power and cut back on scholarships, with the result that Godwin found himself without a means of financial support.

“Working while studying wasn’t a tradition of students in those days. I found a job at a mental hospital in a village outside Cambridge, working as a shift hand, and I would tell my friends I was going to a party in the country on the weekend.”

The nurses eventually realised that Godwin was a student, and confided with him that there was one patient who had been a law professor before he went mad, but still had periods of being lucid.”

“So they would beep me when he was lucid, and I would run to room and do law tutorials.”

‘Catch and release’

The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe was an accidental book Godwin had never intended to write.

In 2008 Robert Mugabe lost his own election.

“It’s uncanny how similar oppressive regimes are,” Godwin observes. “Mugabe had elections but they weren’t real elections – there were 100,000 votes from people over 100 years old in a country with the lowest life expectancy in the world, for instance.”

Mugabe however had underestimated his populace and and it became apparent “that the vote against him was so overwhelming he not stuffed enough ballot boxes.”

Godwin’s book was to be written “dancing on Mugabe’s political grave”, but shortly after he arrived the country’s politburo decided they couldn’t concede.

“So they launched a second round, and during those six weeks Mugabe essentially launched a war against his own people. They set up network of torture bases in schools – turned the schools into torture chambers. Then they called in people who supported the opposition and tortured them very severely.”

The victims were released back into their own communities, giving rise to the description of that period: ‘The Fear’.

“It was ‘smart genocide’,” explains Godwin. “You don’t have to kill 800,000 people, like in Rwanda. If you kill the right few hundred people and torture the rest – to use an angling term, on a ‘catch and release’ basis – they go home and become human billboards, advertisements for political stigmata.”

Sneaking into hospitals and interviewing victims, at the time Godwin found it difficult to figure out what was really going on. But the picture eventually emerged: “This wasn’t spontaneous violence – this was planned, top-down hierarchical violence.”

Silence of the many

“There’s a fascinating study by a US NGO called Genocide Watch, which found that it is only ever a tiny number of people who participate in a genocide – there’s a few people who support but don’t participate, and a vast number of people who don’t do anything at all,” Godwin says.

“Ordinary people often don’t see themselves as morally compromised, but nudge a few of them and you can stop genocide.”

Nobody intervened to prevent Zimbabwe’s slide into chaos “because it lacks the two crucial exports that trigger intervention – terrorism and oil,” Godwin suggests.

Zimbabwe was not strategically important, “but it is important for what it represents,” he says.

“Zimbabwe was always held up as the great African success story, a country with a long life span, high literacy, efficient and not particularly corrupt. People would say: ‘yes, Africa can work.’ It was held up as a counterpoint to places like the Congo.”

When Zimbabwe went wrong, “it was a tragedy for the whole continent”, says Godwin.

Mugabe was the head of a guerrilla war, and dominated the national stage for so long he developed a Messiah complex which made it difficult for people to judge what the country would be like without him.”

The book thus became in some ways a study of tyranny, “and how it is that these sorts of repressive authoritarian regimes start and what it takes for them to survive – and how ordinary people facilitate them.”

Ventilate

A big problem with dictatorships, Godwin notes, are “that they are not very good at transitioning.”

“If you have leader hogging the limelight for 28 years and they suddenly disappear, it’s quite possible that things will get worse in the short run; there may be violence between competing factions, and it is very volatile.”

There also exists the problem of what to do about transitional justice – a vast subject falling between the two clashing camps of ‘revenge’ and ‘reconciliation’, and mired in shades of grey.

“You can listen to each argument and be convinced by it,” says Godwin. “I think it is one of those things where have to look at each case separately. But the thing never works is not doing anything about it: moving on and pretending it hasn’t happened. Because that is one of the things that has gone wrong in Zimbabwe.

“It has festered. You can feel the people seething. And the weird thing is that the children of the people killed and tortured are even more taken up with the cause than the parents. It doesn’t fade away – it magnifies with the passing of generations.”

This takes the emphasis of the decision away from the victims, argues Godwin.

“It’s very counterintuitive. The victims, who were put in jail and tortured – the main victims who suffered during the authoritarian rule of a repressive regime. These people have the inherent right to decide what to do.

“You would imagine that these people would be the most radical, but a curious thing happens. In my experience – and I’m not alone, it’s shared by a lot of NGOs – the main thing that people who have been through the firing line want is acknowledgement. Not an ‘eye-for-an-eye’, just acknowledgement. The further you get away from the actual victims, the more radical you get. The people who didn’t risk their own lives in opposition – they don’t have the authenticity of victimhood. “

What countries grappling with the enormity of such problems have to do “is ventilate”, suggests Godwin.

“You have to bring it into the mainstream. You have to bring it into public debate. You have to basically talk it through. It’s weird that the solution turns out to be the ventilation of it, as it is acknowledged in the media and public discourse, and ultimately in the way people write their own history.”

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