The hardest book to review is the book that touches you personally and this is such a book. To do it justice, yet not let my emotions overwhelm my response, was… impossible. So I have decided to start with the most objective opinion I can manage and then go on to write about my personal feelings.
The book is Without Honour, by Robb W J Ellis.
A simple grey cover, straightforward and unassuming… rather like the author. This is a true story. It is written by a man who was, at the time of writing, a very young hope-filled policeman in the equally very young newly independent country of Zimbabwe.
Robb Ellis writes as he was (and still is at heart) – a policeman. His observations are precisely written, just like a good police report. It makes for a clear, and surprisingly objective, account of his most deeply personal experiences.
“When I decided, at a tender age, that I wanted to be a policeman in Africa, I wanted to do it amongst the people I knew and loved – Zimbabweans. I had visions of a classic police role – someone who investigates crime and corrects the wrongdoings of the criminally minded.
Wow! Was I in for a rude awakening!”
Without Honour is not a book that automatically grips you on the first page. Being a precise sensible sort, Robb starts with a chapter explaining the history of the country and the politics of that time. If you know most of this, as I do, it was a little redundant and dry, but it is a very necessary reference chapter for anyone who does not know the full history of Rhodesia-Zimbabwe. It also sets the stage for the appalling events that followed Zimbabwe’s Independence.
From there Robb describes his childhood in Rhodesia before going on to write about his brief time as a policeman in Zimbabwe – ‘brief’ due to… well you need to read it and find out. It’s a tale that reads like a movie, complete with the shocking twist-in-the-tale ending, except this is a true story about genuine events.
How would I sum up this book? I’d say it is:
A clear honest account of a period in time when a country turned inwards and ate itself alive.
Robb wanted to make the world a better place… instead he found himself caught up in an insanity that nearly cost him his life and most certainly left deep and irreparable scars on his soul. As he puts it:
“The story that you are about to read is fact. I was there and it happened around me, and to me. It is all true. It can’t be fiction – a story like this can never be made up. It’s too convoluted, too personal, too destructive – too real…
It took something deep inside of me to even start writing this book.
… And it hurt to write this – mentally.”
I can only imagine how it felt to live this story.  It hurt to read it – I wept through most of it. I don’t know if you will weep too. Our world has become overloaded and numbed to war atrocities on TV news, but for me this isn’t a story you see on the TV and say, “How terrible” as you switch channels. This happened to a man my age who grew up in the same country as me; he worked in and around the city where I was born. This is where my family roots are and the chance that I, or my family, knew people involved in these times is not only possible… it is inevitable.
Even trying to pick a few quotes from the book I ended up crying again.
“The terrible stench of burned human flesh filled the air. Not a smell you would want to smell everyday, but one which once you would easily identify again, should you have that terrible privilege.
The remains of the hut were still smouldering. The bodies within were all melded together, their burnt limbs outstretched as if accusing the living of not doing more to save them. Small bodies. Grotesquely misshapen in a final dance with death… Ugly…
Facial expressions reflecting the final moments of life… Glaring empty eye sockets, questioning why…
How do you handle something like that? What do you do?
I had discovered in my relatively short time in the Police that the best way to handle scenes like this was to busy myself with anything and everything else – not to allow my mind to stop and think.
Don’t stop. Keep going. The dead don’t mind.
But they do. And they ask questions every time you allow your mind to venture back to that day. Why weren’t you there to stop them? What did you do to help?”
Robb was 19 when he witnessed these events. He wrote them down in reports that would be quietly removed from all records… because these events were commanded by the bright new president himself, Robert Mugabe.
Robb began to realise that he was tracking the actions of an elite government-approved brigade of mercenaries rather than random acts of violence… and with that understanding came the new fear of being someone who knows his own government is now his enemy. How that came to a climax is quite surreal and terrifying.
This is a frightening book and it contains descriptions of war crimes that are definitely not for the sensitive. There are details in here that will haunt you, but to leave them out is to deny these people any justice or voice. Robb has given them his voice and continues to be a voice for Zimbabwe.
I am honoured to know him.