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Conqueror        print

When one Zimbabwe native decided to fight for the future of her country, she became an activist. When she was beaten, raped and nearly killed for her activism, she became a survivor.

By James Kindle
Sept. 10, 2008

For Zimbabwe native Sehlule*, it happens every day. Usually it’s when she’s sitting on the bus or in a taxi that she’ll feel the gnawing pain in her right knee. And then she’ll remember all that comes with it.

She’ll remember the mob outside her house in the middle of the night, breaking her windows.

She’ll remember her flight to Botswana and subsequent deportation back to Zimbabwe.

She’ll remember her abduction in broad daylight, and the house, the room that became her cell for three days.

She’ll remember the beatings, the dousings with freezing water, the gang rapes by familiar men—her neighbors—on the cold cement floor.

And she’ll remember her escape, when her tormentors slammed into her with the truck they used to kidnap her, attempting to destroy her life but only succeeding in destroying her knee.

On this shattered knee, Sehlule fled a dangerous, ineffective hospital and left her native country for a second time, traveling across the border to South Africa, where she would find her way to the South African Centre for Survivors of Torture (SACST). Sehlule, 32, now works there, providing therapy to other torture survivors and, in doing so, giving therapy to herself.

It is here that Sehlule sees the second daily reminder of what she went through—in the stream of survivors who come, unceasingly, through the front door of the center’s downtown Johannesburg office, only feet from where Sehlule sits at her desk. A third are women. Through their stories, she continually confronts her own—finding dozens of other members of this brutal sisterhood—and confronts the scope of the Zimbabwe government’s war on its own people.

“I’m not the only one,” Sehlule says. “There are many victims outside who have gone through what happened to me.”

The fight begins

kneeJames Kindle
Sehlule shows her scarred right knee, which was injured when she lived in Zimbabwe and ZANU-PF youth militia members ran into her with a truck as she tried to escape their torture.
Sehlule is sitting in a spacious 11th floor conference room of SACST. Her short dreadlocks are pulled back from brown eyes that shift from vibrancy to blankness. Her feet, wrapped in black slip-on shoes that twist into a braid of leather over her toes, are stretched in front of her, her knee unable to bend the right foot back. When Sehlule lifts her lime green pleated skirt, this knee is an uneven, speckled bump—a mix of brown skin and white scars. Her arms, too, bear the white markings to the whip that was used on them.

Just down from these scars are 12 bracelets in green, red and black. They’re the colors of South Africa’s flag. And Zimbabwe’s.

The story of Sehlule’s scars, and of her relationship with the countries whose flags’ colors wrap her arm, begins with her first name: Sehlule, which means “winner” or “conqueror” in her native Ndebele.

In 1975, when Sehlule was born, Zimbabwe was on the cusp of a revolution. Great Britain’s rule in what was then Rhodesia was facing intense opposition from native African political parties, notably the Zimbabwe African National Union party (ZANU). The year before, ZANU had elected an influential political prisoner named Robert Mugabe as its president.

“When my mother gave that [name] to me, I think, in 1975…it seemed independence was around the corner,” she says.

It was, and in 1980 a 5-year-old Sehlule watched as her newly free, hopeful country elected Mugabe as its first prime minister.

By 2000 things had changed. Now president, Mugabe had grown increasingly authoritarian: rigging elections, assuming greater powers and wiping out thousands of Ndebele rebels in what many consider ethnic cleansing. In early 2000 he put forth a constitutional referendum to seize white-owned farms and give them to black Zimbabweans. It failed—the party’s first loss in any vote.

But Mugabe’s party, now ZANU-PF, went ahead with the land redistribution, anyway, further damaging an economy facing, at that time, 50 percent unemployment and 60 percent inflation. Today, unemployment is 80 percent, at least; the inflation percentage is in the multi-millions.

ZANU-PF also began brutalizing members of the fledgling opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), then only a year old.

Like so many who end up beaten, killed or simply vanished in Zimbabwe, Sehlule decided to raise a dissenting voice. In 2000 she joined the MDC.

 “When I joined it, I wasn’t worried about [retribution] because my main focus was to make a change in Zimbabwe,” she says, adding that widespread beatings were not yet taking place.

Sehlule, who lived in Bulawayo, the country’s second largest city, signed up as a youth leader for the group. But to join the MDC was to draw the attention, and wrath, of ZANU-PF supporters, and in 2002 they came for her.

In the middle of the night, men showed up at her parents’ home—shouting for her, breaking windows and frightening her young daughters, then just 2 and 6. “That was the first time when I got very scared,” she says. “My daughters…they couldn’t really understand what was happening.”

Sehlule and her family were able to flee out the back door from the men screaming outside her home, shattering her windows like they shattered her sense of security. The next day, with her parents’ help, she took a bus to the border of nearby Botswana and, having no passport, jumped the fence.

Sehlule stayed in the capital, Gabarone, until August 2003, working as a school custodian. Her children stayed with her parents. (Sehlule and her husband divorced soon after the birth of her second child.) Sehlule refused to apply for refugee status because she didn’t want to stay in what she saw as restricted, dirty refugee camps Botswana had set up.

“It’s very horrible there. You’re not allowed to go out. You just sit in the camp, doing nothing, and there’s no food there,” says Sehlule, a non-native English speaker who sometimes has difficulty with phrasings. “So I thought maybe I should just stay there without the legal papers because the idea of staying [in the camp] was something else.”

But Sehlule was aware of the risks of staying in the country illegally. As she was being transported back to Zimbabwe after being caught by Botswana police in August 2003, she knew she might again face the violence of ZANU-PF.

I knew that one day they will come back,” she said.

* For safety reasons, Sehlule asked that her last name not be used.


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I’m not the only one. There are many victims outside who have gone through what happened to me.”