The travails of Zimbabwe’s child `terrorist’

By Columbus Mavhunga, DPA,

Harare : A three-year-old Zimbabwean, nicknamed the “world’s youngest terrorist” after his abduction last year by state security agents and imprisonment for three months, is struggling to adjust to life as a free infant.

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Nigel Mutemagau was two when suspected members of President Robert Mugabe’s secret service seized him and his parents, both senior members of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), from their Banket home about 100 km west of Harare last October.

His mother, Violet Mupfuranhewe, and his father, Collen Mutemagau, were among dozens of MDC and human rights activists rounded up and charged with terrorism in a crackdown on Mugabe critics a month after the leader of 29 years signed up to share power with the MDC.

For two months, Nigel and his parents were held at undisclosed locations until the couple were finally brought to court at the end of December and charged with plotting to topple President Robert Mugabe. Incredibly, Nigel’s name also appeared on the original list of accused.

After charges were laid the family was transferred to the notorious Chikurubi maximum security prison in Harare.

In January, Nigel was released into the custody of a relative. His parents were released on bail in February, only to be briefly re-arrested in April. Nigel, who doesn’t smile much and hides behind his mother when meeting strangers, is fortunate to have made it out of prison alive.

In a recent report, Amnesty International said 970 prisoners had died between January and May and called the conditions behind bars deplorable. A documentary screened on South African television earlier this year showed skeletal inmates wasting away from hunger and disease.

At the request of the cash-strapped government, the International Red Cross has since begun feeding thousands of detainees.

Five months after gaining his freedom, Nigel is still haunted by his experiences.

In an interview last month Violet told DPA: “Nigel cries every time he hears voices of people singing. He is really terrified by crowds. At times he starts shouting.”

The family has taken him out of nursery school because he was having difficulty re-integrating, she says.

“Nigel was beaten on many occasions during his incarceration – when he cried, or asked for food, or wanted to go to the toilet. He was also threatened and watched his mother being tortured, including having boiling water poured over her followed by iced water and being forced to remain in her wet clothes,” said Frances Lovemore, a spokesperson for the Counselling Services Unit, an organization that works with the victims of political violence.

“Collen and Violet are very close as a couple, and the separation of the family unit, since Collen was not in the same cell as Nigel and Violet, also affected Nigel,” Lovemore added.

Nigel’s brother Allan is also finding it tough to be a kid after being robbed of his parents for three months.

The seven-year-old, who fled to a neighbour’s house, when seven armed men in three unmarked vehicles pulled up outside his parent’s home in Kuwadzana township last October, is now afraid in his home.

“And if he sees big vehicles he runs away,” according to Collen.

Violet and Collen testified about their detention recently in the Supreme Court, where they are seeking a permanent stay of prosecution on the basis of gross violations of their rights while in detention, including torture.

In a hearing on their detention in April, High Court Justice Charles Hungwe remonstrated with the state over its detention of Nigel.

“The Republic of Zimbabwe must be seen, through the acts of its public officials, to be protective of the rights of the child,” Hungwe said.

Amnesty International lamented the lack of progress by the five-month-old unity government on human rights as “woefully slow”.

The UN children’s agency Unicef says it has identified 58 children under five who are currently behind bars with their mothers at the country’s eight main penitentiaries. The agency is supplying the mothers with food, clothes, nappies and other supplies.