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Last Updated: Sunday, 26 June, 2005, 21:56 GMT 22:56 UK
Zimbabweans fight on two fronts
By Hannah Goff
BBC News

As scores of Zimbabwean asylum seekers go on hunger strike against deportation back to their home country, BBC News went to a London church for what was described as a "service for victims of torture of Robert Mugabe's brutal regime".

It may have been billed as a "service of remembrance for the fallen victims of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe".

But this was more a demonstration of determination and an upbeat call to action.

Picture of alleged Zimbabwean torture victim
The Commonwealth has questioned whether people should be returned to Zimbabwe

The service at St Paul's Church, Covent Garden, in the heart of central London, was an expression of hope for a Zimbabwe where people could speak out as loudly as those singing in the congregation.

As asylum seekers and activists chatted happily outside the church in the English sunshine, it was hard to believe they were there to commemorate lost loved ones and fight for those threatened with deportation.

But as Eldridge Calverwell, of the Zimbabwe Diaspora Coalition, explained: "You don't have that same sense of oppression that you have in Zimbabwe. It's a natural human reaction, it's like a burden has been lifted from your shoulders.

"Most of the people here have been subjected to the brutality of the regime and a lot of them have relatives who have been tortured.

"People bear the scars on their backs and in their minds."

People only have so much energy. How many battles can people fight at the same time?
Sarah Harland
Zimbabwe Association

Inside the church large photographs of bodies jagged with scars adorned the entrance.

The names of the alleged victims featured, and their dates of death were scrawled in black marker pen on sheets of card.

Another picture showed two young black men being squashed by the boots of Zimbabwean soldiers carrying machine guns around their necks.

For Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of Zimbabwean pressure group the National Constitutional Assembly, this stereotype of an Africa pre-disposed to violence is bizarre.

Zimbabwean activist
Thousands of Zimbabweans have been evicted from their homes

He told the service: "Violence is not something that is instinctive in Zimbabwe.

"We have a position that is made in some circles that's quite strange.

"It's that aspects of violence and torture are part and parcel with the African way of doing politics."

Police beatings

But if that was the case, surely all the Zimbabweans in Britain and spread around the world would be violent, he said.

"There is internal opposition to human rights abuse in Zimbabwe - a very strong opposition, a political movement that says 'no' to oppression."

That is why President Mugabe continues to use torture and fear to hold on to power, he said.

As a prominent activist for democracy, Dr Madhuku says he has experienced it first hand.

On 4 February last year, he says he was leading a demonstration of about 500 people through Harare when the police went for him.

Eldridge Calverwell
We simply do not know if they are alive or dead
Eldridge Calverwell

They knocked him to the ground with a baton and started kicking him with heavy boots, he says.

Then they piled him into an open police van and drove him around the streets publicly beating him in front of the demonstrators.

When he resumed consciousness, he says, he found he had been dumped in the countryside where he was helped by some young villagers.

Hunger strikes

Dr Madhuku is in the vanguard of the fight against the deportation of failed asylum seekers, who the Home Office says cannot substantiate their claims that they will face persecution.

With at least 90 Zimbabweans on hunger strike in British detention centres, it is a battle which has to be won before activists can return to the fight for democracy, says Sarah Harland, of the Zimbabwe Association.

She says: "If we can get the removals suspended than we can actually get back to doing something about the country.

"One can spend one's life struggling against desperate legal aid restrictions.

"People only have so much energy. How many battles can people fight at the same time?"

Labour camps

What of the mood of the hunger strikers?

Mr Calverwell says: "They are ebullient in their determination to see this through. There are now 98 people on hunger strike.

"If the judiciary is controlled by the state, if the freedom of the press is ruthlessly suppressed, if movements are curtailed, how can anyone prove they are being persecuted?"

Home Office ministers say there is no evidence that people being returned to Zimbabwe are being mistreated, but Mr Calverwell says this is because they are rounded up and sent to forced labour camps.

"We simply do not know if they are alive or dead," he says.

Zimbabwe's human tragedy
24 Jun 05 |  Africa

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