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Interviews : Jestina Mukoko

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Interviewed May 2012

Jestina M. Mukoko is the National Director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, a nonprofit organization that monitors and documents political violence in Zimbabwe. As Zimbabwe’s premier monitoring body, the organization maintains a strong network throughout the country that is able to bring widespread attention to occurrences of political violence.

A long-time leader in the human rights and activist communities in Zimbabwe, Ms. Mukoko was abducted from her home on December 3, 2008, by state security agents for her work monitoring the brutality of the Robert Mugabe government. During her 21-day abduction, she was tortured, beaten, and forced to confess to a crime she did not commit. She remained detained until a court granted her bail on March 2, 2009.

For her steadfastness on issues related to human rights, Jestina Mukoko was named the 2009 Laureate of the City of Weimar (Germany) Human Rights Prize and a 2010 recipient of the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award. In 2009, Ms. Mukoko was awarded the NANGO (National Association of Nongovernmental Organizations) Peace Award. For her commitment and perseverance, she received the French National Order of the Legion of Honor award in 2011.

She serves on several boards, including those of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, and the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for Zimbabwe. A former news anchor for the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, she is also mentoring with the Female Students Network, a youth organization.

A peace and human rights campaigner, Jestina Mukoko is also a mother. She holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Politics and Administration from the University of Zimbabwe. Ms. Mukoko was the 2010 Fellow at the Oak Institute for International Human Rights at Colby College in Maine. In 2012, she joined other mid-career professionals as a Draper Hills Summer Fellow on Democracy and Development Program at Stanford University. 

I was released on bail on the 2nd of March 2009. But even on the outside, I felt that the torture continued. I had to live with sleepless nights. I had to live with fear of moving around in the streets. I had no confidence to drive myself. Somehow I had to give up my privacy by having somebody drive me wherever I wanted to go. I lived on sleeping tablets, which I recognized later on that they wouldn’t take me throughout the night.

At times by 1 a.m., 2 a.m., they lost their effect, and I would be wide-awake until the crack of dawn. And just getting to the crack of dawn meant that my troubles started, because I imagined those people at my gate. When my case was eventually finalized, I just could not live in the house. It was just torture living in the house, and yet it had been my paradise for me to be able to live in that house. Whenever I saw the model of the vehicle that took me, I think I would just spoil my day. And I think what really pained me when I then joined my family was discovering that they took the search to morgues.

My brother went from one morgue to another at least just trying to get my lifeless body in those places until he was told that he had taken the search too far by one government official. And he said on that day he celebrated, because he knew that I was alive somewhere, although he didn’t know where I was. It took a long time for me to come out of the trauma. I had to go through treatment. My son also had to go through therapy. In all the time that he was going through this, I kept on worrying as a mother, because people were telling me that they had not seen his tears. And I was worried that probably I was breeding somebody who was going to be wife basher in his old life.

And when I got the opportunity to get therapy, I also asked if I could take my son with me. And the doctor actually spoke about how he broke down, and I knew that he had vented his anger. And it took years for me to be able to get to where I am. There were moments where I would just sleep on the couch. I wouldn’t do anything; I couldn’t even cook for my family. And my son kept on asking: Mommy, I enjoy your cooking. But I just could not get myself to cook. And I was telling somebody that I was alive and yet dead, because I think when they took me on the 3rd of December, it was like dying. I didn’t even have an opportunity to say anything to my son. And just continuing afterwards trying to visualize what was happening and living with excruciating pain in my feet, I think those were some of the things that I just could not handle. 

Zimbabwe is a landlocked country in southern Africa, with a population of approximately 12.5 million people. A former British colony, a white minority unilaterally declared independence as Rhodesia in 1965. The Rhodesian government excluded the black majority from political power and failed to win diplomatic recognition. In 1980, an agreement brokered by the British government established Zimbabwe’s independence as a multiracial democracy. That same year, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) party, led by Robert Mugabe, swept the first free elections in the country. Mugabe served as prime minister until 1987, when he became president, an office he holds to this day. During more than two decades of Mugabe’s rule, Zimbabwe’s democracy has steadily eroded.

Mugabe’s social and economic policies have been disastrous. An estimated one-fifth of the population is infected with HIV. Life expectancy has declined dramatically since 1990. Land redistribution in the 1990s cut food production and led to hunger and disease. The government’s mismanagement of the economy led to hyperinflation in the 2000s, reaching an estimated peak of 13 billion percent in November 2008.

Mugabe has stifled democracy and human rights since coming to power. The government cracks down on opposition political parties and civil society groups. Basic rights such as freedom of expression and assembly are not respected. Violence surrounding the 2008 elections led to a power-sharing agreement between ZANU and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Freedom House rates Zimbabwe as not free in political rights and civil liberties, noting Mugabe’s frequent abuses of power, corruption, regime-sponsored political violence, the lack of independent media, and flawed electoral processes. 

More from Jestina Mukoko

Jestina Mukoko: Released on Bail “I was released on bail. But even on the outside, I felt that the torture continued.” Jestina Mukoko: Role of Women “Zimbabwean women take the lead because we are the mothers of the nation.” Jestina Mukoko: Detention and Trial “After 21 days I was handed to the police, now being prosecuted for recruiting people to engage in acts of sabotage, terrorism and overthrow a constitutionally elected government.” More + Jestina Mukoko: Robert Mugabe “It took a while for me to really see the man that Robert Mugabe was.” Jestina Mukoko: Background “In 2008, I was abducted by state agents, kept incommunicado for 21 days, accused of a crime that I never committed, and then kept at a maximum security prison for 68 days.” Jestina Mukoko: The Zimbabwe Peace Project “A group of faith-based and human rights organizations established the Zimbabwe Peace Project.” Jestina Mukoko: Torture “I decided that I was going to hold on to the pain as they went on to thrash me.” Jestina Mukoko: The After Effects of Torture “At times I feel that I am still at risk.” Jestina Mukoko: Technology in Zimbabwe “New technologies are certainly having an impact on people’s lives. I’m not sure they’re having an impact on the politics in the country.” Jestina Mukoko: International Support “International pressure made them move back from physically torturing me.” Jestina Mukoko: Kneeling on Gravel “It was like I had left my body and I was watching this suffering woman from somewhere.” Jestina Mukoko: Political Violence “When we are talking about political violence, the actors are really the political parties.” Jestina Mukoko: Abducted by the State “I was abducted on the 3rd of December 2008.” Jestina Mukoko: Messages to Dissidents “There will be an opportunity for you to come out of every harrowing experience.” Jestina Mukoko: Vindication by the Court “The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that my rights had been violated by the state.”