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Listen to Joseph Winter's report
"They were beating at the door"
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Saturday, 24 February, 2001, 08:28 GMT
How I left Zimbabwe
Joseph Winter reported from Zimbabwe for four years
Joseph Winter: Relieved to have left Zimbabwe
Harare correspondent Joseph Winter on his expulsion from Zimbabwe

As I write this piece on the plane back to London, I'm feeling a deep sense of sadness at the manner of our departure, and relief that we managed to leave without discovering at first hand exactly what the men who tried to break into our house had really wanted.

I'm also angry at the vindictive way we were treated by the Zimbabwean authorities.

At heart, I'm a natural optimist, a rare and possibly out-of-place quality for a journalist.

When the two immigration officers summoned me to their headquarters on a Saturday morning, when the building would normally be deserted, I thought to myself, they can't give us 24 hours to leave, the message another foreign journalist had been given through the state-owned press earlier in the week.

Zimbabwe's secret police do not enjoy a reputation for being polite and gentle as they conduct interviews

But that was exactly what they said.

After spending Saturday afternoon trying to get a judge to make an injunction against our deportation, I told my wife, Anne-Marie, "Don't worry. They're not going to come and drag us out of our beds in the middle of the night." How wrong can you get?

Luckily, my wife was much less rosy-eyed.

She insisted on us packing our bags, just in case.

If she hadn't, we would have fled to South Africa with just the clothes we had thrown on as our kitchen door was being smashed down.

As it is, we left all our daughter's toys behind, along with my wedding ring, which I forgot to grab as we ran out of the house in a state of panic.

Just hours after finishing our packing, the doorbell rang at 2:00am.

Even in relatively genteel Harare, burglars don't ring doorbells, leaving no doubt that it was the visit we had been dreading.

We phoned our lawyer, who advised us not to answer.

Maybe they were tapping our phone, because almost immediately, they went to the back of the house, jumped over the wall, and began hammering away on the kitchen door, making a noise loud enough to raise even the deepest sleeper, except miraculously, our daughter of just 20 months.

Then we heard other noises, as they, whoever they were, tried to break in.


Now when we moved into this house two years ago, we laughed at the paranoia of the landlord.

He had installed thick metal bars over every window, and padlocks everywhere, even bolts on the outside of the toilet door, so that if someone broke in through the window, they could be locked inside.

Between 2:00 and 2.30 last Sunday morning, these elaborate safety precautions proved their worth.

The two of us were sitting in our bedroom, scared out of our wits.

Zimbabwe's secret police do not enjoy a reputation for being polite and gentle as they conduct interviews.

But I didn't have time to consider what specific fate may await us. I just felt a blank, generalised terror, knowing that what was happening wasn't in our best interests.

We learned later that they had returned at 4:20am, and had finally succeeded in smashing their way through the assorted locks, bolts and padlocks

I was frantically dialling away on the phone. The lawyer said she would come straight away.

The photographer, who from the beginning had wanted some action photos of our deportation, rushed round, along with other journalists and a British diplomat.

Of this assortment of friends and allies, it was the flash of the camera, illuminating the whole road like lightning, which drove the so-called security agents away.

I had previously learned, in somewhat similar circumstances, that such people don't like being filmed as they do their dirty work.

When it was obvious that they had gone, we gingerly opened the door to the suggestion that we go and spend what was left of the night with the British High Commission.

This prospect of safety sounded far more appealing than even the most luxurious hotel.

We grabbed a few small bags, along with our daughter, still fast asleep, and jumped into the car.

We learned later that they had returned at 4:20am, and had finally succeeded in smashing their way through the assorted locks, bolts and padlocks.

Even as I write this, the last I heard was that a police officer was still preventing anyone from entering the premises, despite the pictures of me in South Africa being beamed around the world.

Even in the sanctuary of the British High Commission, the slightest sound had us jumping up from our beds.

'They really had it in for us'

On Sunday, we continued with our legal battle. Around lunchtime, we finally had some good news.

The government lawyers had agreed to us remaining for another five days - not the cancellation of our expulsion that we had wanted, but a far more reasonable time to wind up our affairs in a country after four years.

And a judge issued a court order to this effect, which also barred state agents from interfering with us or our property in any way.

When the door was closed on that plane, I knew we were finally safe, and a wave of overwhelming relief swept throughout my body

But our reprieve was short-lived.

The lawyer phoned a couple of hours later to say that everyone, from the Information Minister who had organised this whole sorry episode, to the police officers inside our house, had refused to obey what their own legal representatives had agreed to.

It was obvious that they really had it in for us.

While we may have had the moral high ground, we were up against the whole force of the state machinery, and it was an uneven contest.

When our landlord later phoned to say that the man he had sent to look after both his and our property had been chased away by secret police wielding machine guns, all our thoughts turned to: how do we get out of here?

Luckily, the far-sighted BBC South Africa Bureau Chief had already made reservations on a flight to Johannesburg first thing the next morning.

When the door was closed on that plane, I knew we were finally safe, and a wave of overwhelming relief swept throughout my body.

We arrived to see the dramatic pictures of our midnight escape splashed across the local newspapers.

It was incredible walking around a Johannesburg shopping mall, as stranger after stranger came up to us, saying, "We're so sorry about what happened. Don't worry. Keep up the good work," or asked, "What is Mugabe up to?"

I almost broke down in tears when three Zimbabwean waitresses tried to comfort us, mothering us like wounded chicks.

But as we now fly away, my thoughts are with those we leave behind.

After intimidating opposition supporters, local journalists, lawyers, judges, and now the foreign press, who will be next, as Robert Mugabe pulls out all the stops to remain in power?

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See also:

19 Feb 01 | Africa
BBC journalist flees Zimbabwe
16 Feb 01 | Africa
Mugabe opponent rejects charges
10 Feb 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Zimbabwe's descent into violence
18 Oct 00 | Africa
Zimbabwe: Economic melt-down
28 Jan 01 | Africa
Zimbabwe newspaper bombed
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