When I moved from Harare to Bulawayo two decades ago it was through the good offices of Palestine’s then Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Ali Halimeh, that I already knew his friend, Rabbi Ben Isaacson. The Rabbi was moving from Harare to Bulawayo at the same time and Father Michael Lapsley should also have been joining us here, but his plans were shattered by the parcel bomb he received in Harare on April 28, 1990.

Through the Rabbi I met members of the local Jewish community which, at the height of Zimbabwe’s prosperity, numbered about 2 500 in this region. It now consists of 70 people, including 3 children and no longer is there a resident Rabbi. This year’s Holocaust Remembrance ceremony was thus conducted on May 16 by “The Travelling Rabbi”, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft from South Africa. I was present having been invited to light a candle representing the continuing struggle for human rights.

While recalling names of those responsible for the hell of the holocaust the Rabbi said Jewish children should also be taught the names of saviours such as Oskar Schindler, well known through Steven Spielberg’s film; and Sempo Sugihara and Aristides de Sousa Mendes.

Sempo Sugihara, a Buddhist, was the Japanese Consul in Kaunus, Lithuania in 1940 where Jews, knowing of the Nazi sweep across Europe, were attempting to get visas to other countries. But no-one wanted them. “However, Sempo Sugihara issued 6,000 Japanese visas to these Lithuanian Jews and saved their lives. Upon learning of this activity, the Japanese government became extremely unhappy and assigned Sugihara to another post. But, even as his train was pulling out of the Kaunus railway station, Mr. Sugihara was still handing out visas through the train window”.

In 1940 Aristides de Sousa was in charge of the Portuguese Consulate in Bordeaux, France. There were 10 000 Jews in his area attempting to escape to Spain and eventually Portugal, titularly a neutral country. But Portugal closed the escape exit for Jews.

“In spite of this Mendes, who was a Catholic and a lawyer said: ‘I cannot close my eyes to the pain of these Jews’…and spoke directly …. ‘My government has denied you visas, but I cannot allow you to die… Even if I am dismissed from my post I cannot but act as a Christian, faithful to the dictates of my conscience’. With that statement, he sat down .. and for three days he stamped visas for thousands of Jews.”

Recalled by the furious Government of Salazar, he passed through the French town of Bayonne where the refugees at the Portuguese Consulate were being denied visas. Very upset by his colleagues he “therefore quickly stepped in and said ‘I outrank you. I will give them visas,’ and he stamped visas for the entire day.”

Both men were severely punished for their actions but Mendes eventually said “I have no regrets. I am proud of what I did. If thousands of Jews can suffer because of one Catholic, Hitler, then truly it is permitted for one Catholic, me, to suffer for so many Jews. I could not act otherwise.”

Travelling Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft concluded the occasion by quoting the Talmudic statement (M. Sanhedrin 4:5) ” ‘He who saves one life is as if he has saved the entire world.’

Schindler saved 11,000 Jews

Sugihara saved 6,000 Jews

Mendes saved 10,000 Jews

This morning, here in Bulawayo, I pray that we Jewish people will never forget their names. Amen!”

by Philip Barclay

Publisher: Bloomsbury (ISBN 978 1 4088 0520 6)

Explaining Britain’s silence on Zimbabwe’s Gukurahundi atrocities Sir Martin Ewans, their then representative here, said: “It wasn’t pleasant and people were being killed but … I don’t think anything was to be gained by protesting to Mugabe about it … I think the advice was to steer clear of it in the interests of doing our best positively to help Zimbabwe build itself up as a nation.”

This stance continued throughout the 1980s when, to quote Philip Barclay’s book, Zimbabwe’s first Prime Minister was “collecting, centralising and concentrating power”, adjusting the constitution to transform himself into an executive President, and demonstrating a capacity “for savage social engineering.”

Imagine, therefore, the shock in Harare when the cosy relationship with Britain’s Conservatives terminated with the 1997 election of Blair’s New Labour government which, while emphasising development and Africa, demanded a matching emphasis on good governance by would-be recipients of British aid.

Posted to the British Embassy here as a political officer from 2006 to 2009, Barclay fell in love with Zimbabwe, taking to heart its “hope and despair”. Thankfully his ultimate boss, Foreign Secretary David Miliband, broke with Britain’s tradition of secrecy and encouraged blogs – (continuing narratives on the web) – for employees to publish personal views on the FCO website. Hence the creation of this immensely important record in which, against the dilineated background of economic and social collapse, Barclay examines the roles played by South Africa’s Mbeki, SADC, the AU and others in forcing Zimbabwe into a “global political agreement”.

Vital in enabling the gathering of all this information was Barclay’s accreditation as an observer right to the ballot boxes during the 29 March 2008 elections, and the June “run-off”. He initially concentrated on the Gutu, Zaka, Bikita and Chivi constituencies and then recorded the subsequent weeks of horrendous, punitive attacks on people in Masvingo and Manicaland. Although these elections saw mass exclusions of Zimbabweans from voting procedures (apart from the disenfranchised millions in the diaspora, an estimated 20% of those who actually got to the polls to vote were turned away ) determination for change was in the air and the eventual results caused panic in government.

Barclay’s thesis is that then a shocked “Mugabe wobbled” and wanted to retire quietly abroad. “Money would not be a problem.” But escape was not permitted as his continued presence was required to protect his security chiefs in the Joint Operational Command. Amongst these, more vulnerable than he to prosecution, were “Major-General Paradzai Zimondi, who has turned a term in Zimbabwe’s prison into a death sentence, allowing 20 per cent of prisoners to starve and rot each year; Air Marshall Perence Shiri who led the 5th Brigade’s Gukurahundi purges ….” and all the others involved in the land occupations which resulted in “around 400,000 avoidable, premature deaths … an estimated 40 per cent” of the afflicted 1.5 million workers and dependents driven off the commercial farms.

The recounting of votes started “to buy a dying regime time to plan,” to force a presidential runoff between Tsvangirai and Mugabe in June and to ensure “a radically more favourable electoral climate – one in which people were afraid to vote against Mugabe.” Barclay reports that the JOC thus activated ZANU-PF’s youth militias by channelling money, vehicles and weapons to them with the required help of Gideon Gono and his Reserve Bank.

“Most of ZANU-PF’s wet work in 2008 was carried out by youth militias … mind-controlled children have shown the greatest capacity for subhuman cruelty. Grown-ups are required to manage logistics, deliver materials and insert incendiary propaganda into damaged minds. But when it comes to the intimate work of torturing to death .. crazed, indoctrinated teenagers have an unparalled talent.” In later months, of course, nemesis caught up and, stripped of their “state-funded beer and marijuana,” they “felt the vengeance of their victims rising from shallow graves, saw the hatred on the faces of their former friends and family and knew that they were going to pay some day for what they had done”.

Having given the JOC over a month to restrategise, George Chiweshe’s Electoral Commission announced the Presidential percentage results as being Tsvangirai 47.9; Mugabe 43.2; Makoni 8.3 thus requiring the bloody run-off from which Tsvangirai withdrew.

“Tsvangira’s enormous popularity ultimately had to be admitted and his bid for power could no longer be denied. Though the cruel old men fought, and fight still, the historic courage Zimbabweans had shown on 29 March marked the beginning of their end”.

Perhaps. We can hope. But what is certain is that this beautifully written history meticulously exposes, and in good time too, precisely from what and from who Zimbabwe’s voters will need protection before and during any future election.

Judith Todd
Published in the Zimbabwe Independent May 28 2010