During the last Zimbabwean elections George, a Harare resident, was seized by a group of political thugs. Terrified, George was stripped down to his underwear. For three days he survived without water in the tropical heat, fed only with food chewed and spat out by the guards. He was put in a room which he knew weas used for rape and torture. Lice crawled across his skin. After three days and nights of terror, he was released with a warning.
Horrific camps like these were reported in the world’s media before the 2008 election, all over Zimbabwe. Part of a campaign of terror designed to prevent people voting for the opposition.
Now elections are scheduled again for 2013. And already there are signs that the camps are coming back. Harare residents are being forced to attend political rallies. “If you don’t go to their meeting,” explains George, “they say – ‘We see you and your time is coming!’ ”
In this fraught situation, local peacebuilders Envision are trying to make a difference. Across Zimbabwe they have set up volunteer peace committees to reach across divided communities and influence local councils and police. These have encouraged people to talk about incidents of violence and how to defuse them. In George’s area, the peace committee’s work involves 4,000 local people.
A special focus of their work is young men, who can easily be lured into political violence in a country suffering extremely high youth unemployment. As one youth said, “We do not want to be a vehicle for violence, but we need food on the table.” Envision plan to set up farming co-operatives for young men, to grow and sell crops and build a better future.
In rural areas they have trained 22 chiefs in conflict management, so they can use their power to keep political thugs out of their areas. In partnership with churches, Envision have trained churchgoers in conflict transformation – a set of sophisticated techniques for changing the conditions that allow violence to breed. These preventive measures could save lives in the run-up to next year’s elections.