Short story. Fiction. 4,557 words. Author: Joe Ruzvidzo
Justice will prevail.
That’s what gives me comfort.
So no matter how tired we feel, no matter how much stress you put on my back, no matter how hard they make my life … justice will prevail.
I knew I was fucked going in. One simply does not participate in a revolution, or battle for the soul of a nation, any nation, without considering the potential consequences.
Once you make that choice, once you cross that rickety internal bridge and commit to your cause, you are completely screwed, because it is at that moment that your life changes forever.
You know bad things will happen, tough decisions will be made, lives will be ended and whoever squeezes through the arse end of the conflict will not be the same you who went in.
One does not make the proverbial omelette without breaking the proverbial eggs, I chuckled morbidly, as I surveyed the ruins of my tiny kingdom, in the dwelling formerly known as ‘Room B23: Tech Support’ on the seventh floor of Southampton Life Towers.
I had known I was in trouble the moment I entered the hideout, gingerly picking my way between bits of collapsed ceiling and the broken backs of mangled office chairs.
The spacious back room of what had once been a computer repair workshop had been badly shaken by the latest explosion, and much of my makeshift communications equipment was covered in a fine layer of rubble.
A quick appraisal of the long, low shelf against the back wall told me three things.
First, that the two most valuable objects in my life, the tiny box television and battered old laptop computer, had survived the nearby bomb blast relatively unscathed.
Second, that almost every piece of ragged clothing I owned and kept hanging from a washing line strung diagonally across the room, would henceforth be a fetching, dapple-grey colour.
Last of all, I knew in my heart of hearts that my mission was in jeopardy, and I was in really deep trouble.
I surveyed what remained of my possessions, making mental notes of what needed replacing and what was beyond even the efforts of the genius kids working tirelessly in the hidden rebel camps back home.
Tethered precariously to an ancient car battery like a critical patient on a life-saving drip, the obsolete notebook was my main lifeline to the outside world, or whatever remained of it outside greater Harare.
I ran searching fingers all around the battered aluminium body, gently feeling for structural damage or exposed wiring before I attempted to boot it up.
Satisfied the rugged old thing had no dents newer than when I’d left it that morning, I flipped it open. I pressed the power button, silently willing it to spin and whir into life and link me up to the network, like it had done so faithfully every day for a slow, agonising year.
With my communications link up and running, I moved over to the squat grey box that passed for a television in my little hideout, partly submerged under chunks of wall and plaster. It didn’t appear to show much damage either, so I checked the indicator display on the old battery, and flicked it on.
Stretching wearily, I began the annoying task of dusting off my ragged clothing, coughing through the grey dust as I beat each item against my legs.
The television droned a low, incomprehensible monologue, which provided a soundtrack to the ceaseless imagery of devastation and destruction flickering across the small screen. There was nothing new, or surprising, in watching film footage of the capital city reduced to a stark wasteland of ash and rubble.
The volume was almost muted, as I couldn’t bear the juvenile ranting of whichever idiot was currently at the electronic bully pulpit of live news. It did not make the images themselves any more or less compelling.
The once-bustling Fourth Street, just a couple of blocks north of my hideout, was a graveyard for the rusted, skeletal remains of long-dead motorcars, giving a visual tally of long-dead motorists. Each burnt-out hulk was a death marker for at least one wretched soul, who met their bitter end by getting flash-boiled in a painted metal shell with custom leather interiors and power windows.
The once-proud twin towers of Karigamombe Center and the Reserve Bank building now just seemed like a jagged pair of arthritic middle fingers, raised in accusation towards aloof or non-existent gods.
The once-blue sky of the “sunshine city” was now darkened by regular, almost-mournful columns of smoke. They rose to the heavens like grimy pillars in some long-abandoned hall of the ancients, making the sky a dusky mishmash of grey smoke and black smog.
From every camera angle, Harare was burning. Where I say burning, some would say burnt, abandoned and forgotten, but I alone held a solitary hope that anything could be salvaged from the detritus.
There was something of immense value here, and I was not leaving until I found it. The solution to my current predicament lay somewhere in the ruins of this stinky, smog-covered hell.
Not that I knew just what that solution was. I had neither clue nor inkling what it is I was looking for, or even where to begin the search. All I had was this memory disk, a parting gift from my baba delivered five years after his demise, and that I now pass on to you.
When it finally came to me, it revealed a trove of valuable information – knowledge we thought irretrievably lost. Including a sometimes dull, sometimes engaging history lesson disguised as the intimate personal journal of a complicated man.
It also contained a grainy, low-resolution picture, scanned from a photocopy of a printout of an email sent from the highest office authorising the fire-bombing of the capital city; perhaps the last surviving evidence of a crime so monstrously evil that proving it would shift the balance of the civil war, and change the course of Zimbabwe’s history forever.
Perhaps I should explain, because I am sure that last bit has you feeling a little curious.
Allow me to introduce myself.
I am your father, and if you are reading this it means I am finally, irrevocably, convincingly, conclusively, belatedly, inexorably, decisively and inescapably dead.
I didn’t come to revolution by accident; as the son a freedom fighter, one could almost say I was bred to it, raised to it, conditioned and contoured to it. From the moment I could talk, and listen, and understand, I had been taught the difference between Right and Wrong.
I’d been taught how to recognise Evil, and told the only remedy to evil is War. This was the legacy my father gave me, and it made for a very uncomfortable adulthood. I found myself a grown man living in the very society baba had cautioned against, and conscience demanded I do something about it.
Growing up, baba and his comrades had always been clear about the nation they’d fought to free and build, and that was not the nation I saw around me.
I lived in a Zimbabwe of thieving whores, a festering pit of lies and decay run by a coterie of charismatic charlatans, spreading their poisonous tentacles through the moral and economic fabric of an entire people.
I lived in a nation of unrepentant liars, and saw them regularly feted as sacred beings, living testaments to the Hardiness and Patriotism and Entrepreneurship that only Super Patriots could possess; sons of the soil in Saville Row suits.
I lived in a country of idiots, buying imported goods at four times their real dollar value because they thought that now they had a few greenbacks in their pockets and could afford an imported beer, they had Arrived.
I lived in a Harare where nice guys finished last, and was so perversely corrupt that there appeared to be no way for a decent, hard-working and law-abiding citizen to survive without breaking a law, discounting the fact that almost all genuine enterprise was either heavily regulated or criminalised.
I lived in a place of fools and wannabes; looking at the fools’ ongoing reverence for the politico-business elite, I noticed that the modern Zimbabwean fool, above all else, revered and desperately wanted to be close to the “unprincipled winner” – those who engaged in bad acts, acts which everyone knew were bad, and got away with it through flagrant indifference to the law and the rules.
Savvy. Deep down, that is what the fools wanted to believe in and actually did believe in – their own savvy and the savvy of others. In business, they believed, it was better to be savvy than honest.
It was better to be savvy than just, good, fair, decent, lawful, civilised, sincere or humane.
Savvy is what fools admired in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wished to be. That quality of being shrewd, practical, ruthless, well-informed, perceptive, “with it” and unsentimental in all things economic and political was, in a sense, their professional religion.
The fools made a cult of it. And it is this cult that the dharas understood and exploited for financial and political gain.
What is the truest mark of savvy? Winning, of course! The “Honourables” were winners. The boys dzengoda diamond dealers were winners. The Range Rover Elite and the Pentecostal Pastor Class were winners.
Only a fool can admire an unprincipled winner, and I was no fool.
It is hard to overstate the extent to which I saw many of my friends identify with, socialise with, and revere the very opportunists whose purpose was to manipulate and deceive them.
When had we stopped celebrating Good? When did we start valuing vehicles more than human lives? When had Corruption become a way of life?
Where had all the good guys gone?
Was this still the chimurenga of my father, or had it been stolen and personalised by a greedy and selfish elite?
With each unanswered question and passing year, I became more uncomfortable in my own home. Each Independence “celebration” appeared more obscene and insulting to the ideals I had been taught since I started shitting solids.
“Today we remember casting away the yoke of the hated settler, allowing us to move towards our African dream of self-determination and equal opportunity for the black peoples of Zimbabwe,” the television would trumpet incessantly, as emaciated Alsatians with dead eyes and mottled fur jumped through flaming hoops, and bald-headed recruits in fading blue shell-suits demonstrated contrived karate moves that would attract rapid defenestration from any self-respecting dojo.
I’d light the barbecue and drink whisky and remember that I, with my opinions and libertarian sentiments and big mouth, was hated by the very state my baba and his dirt-poor, traumatised and borderline alcoholic comrades had fought to create.
I remembered that because of my ideas and opinions I had been legislated against, my lips shackled in the very bonds the settler masters had tried to bind our celebrated heroes with.
Every Independence Day, I celebrated my ‘freedom’ and felt a little less free than before.
When the civil war began, it actually began as a mistake. The cancelled election of 2023 was the catalyst for nationwide protests. The vast crowds were largely peaceful, heeding civic leaders’ calls not to provoke the military to mass murder. It was bad enough the junta had taken over in a silent coup after the last President had died in office; cancelling the promised vote meant that they were digging in for the long haul, and mass murder has always been a ready tool for strongmen everywhere.
The General was an old war comrade of baba’s. In their early twenties, they had fought together to free the people from the racist settlers, braving deadly mountain passes and freezing valley streams on long forays into the Zimbabwean bush. Baba used to tell me stories of his good friend, who was easy with laughter and far easier with his Kalashnikov.
With the loss of his eye to a Rhodesian Army grenade, baba also lost touch with his friends and was sent to recuperate in Tanzania, gaining a degree and a wife in the process. The rest of his unit was sent to Russia for officer training, and they didn’t meet again until after the war was won and Marley had played his final note.
My father loved to tell the story of how everyone he fought with had claimed at least fifty percent disability after the war, yet the man with a glass ball for a left eye did not touch a cent of public money. “I won’t do it if it doesn’t look right,” he’d guffaw, then slap you on the back and ask if you got it because he did not have a left eye so to him everything essentially looked right from his single right eye. People always got it, but he always explained it anyway.
Baba and Gen traced their respective parts through modern Zimbabwe, my old man cobbling a textile business out of his economics degree, his old comrade rising through the ranks of a strangely adventurous military. They would meet for the occasional bottle of scotch and compare who was making more money, baba selling blankets and curtains to hospitals and schools, or the army man from newly-acquired mining interests in Central Africa.
They say every country is one failed election away from civil war, and doubly so in Africa. The old curse became a self-fulfilling prophecy in Zimbabwe, when the old party lost so heavily in the “harmonised” elections of 2023 that the Presidential portion of the election results was never announced. Crowds gathered in pubs and restaurants to witness the announcement on television were met with blank stares from stern military men. Crowds protesting the silence from the electoral commission were met with teargas and live ammunition from the same stern military men.
We never did find out who won that election; by the time we knew a coup was in effect the coup was over. With every state arm already militarised, it was a simple matter for the General to divert all official communications to his own power structure. The country was taken as ballots were still being counted on BBC and CNN. As the New York Times was predicting a “historic victory against the old guard” the old guard were scattering to the four winds and men with guns were patrolling the capital.
The inevitable countrywide protests followed, with people taking to the streets all across the nation. The response was measured in most areas, with the army and police working hard to contain protests wherever they flared up. But as with any security operation on such a large scale, the army made mistakes. State media would talk of overzealous junior officers when describing tales of grisly murders, and people got angrier.
It took one Corporal, sleep-deprived and starving while suffering a mild heatstroke in thirty five degree weather. Practising terrible weapons safety as he swayed at his post in Africa Unity Square, his Kalashnikov went off by accident. The round only harmed a nearby rosebush, but sparked what you know as the 3 September Massacre. The peaceful but vociferous group waving placards in front of Parliament scattered, panicking the riot police arrayed along Nelson Mandela Avenue.
The shot had come from the square’s fountain directly behind the protest crowd, where a suddenly-alert soldier in suddenly-wet trousers was repeatedly yelling “misfire” into his radio. As it turned out, this was too little too late, and the proverbial shit had already hit the proverbial fan. The man in charge of Parliament’s security force that day, deducing that he was under small arms fire from the protesters, instructed his men to return fire.
When order was finally restored to the police ranks, eleven people lay dead amongst the shrubbery and strewn across the grass like so many broken manikins; cut down while exercising their democratic rights simply because one youth with an AK47 had missed breakfast.
It sparked a wave of attacks on uniformed officers, which elicited a cruelly indiscriminate backlash. And thus, the Third Chimurenga began.
Zimbabwe’s bright young girls and boys were once again geared up and sent off to die; this time not to punish the sins of colonialism, but to atone for the sins of their fathers.
The night before I came to the capital, I was definitely not enjoying myself. I had begun the evening by enjoying myself; I had enjoyed reading my goodbye texts, and receiving crushing hugs from several large ladies of your mother’s acquaintance; I had enjoyed the warnings about the evils and dangers of the capital; I had enjoyed the first few pints of lager; but then, with each successive pint I found that I was enjoying myself significantly less. Switching to orange juice spiked so heavily with gin I could barely taste the citrus, my friends continued to celebrate my forthcoming departure with an enthusiasm bordering on the sinister.
The next morning I boarded the rickety old bus that would bring me past the collapsed National Sports Stadium, half-submerged in a marshland. Your mother gave me a tomato sandwich and a water bottle for the hangover; and off I left for Harare feeling like hammered shit.
So here I was, hiding in a crumbled old office tower, eating tinned food scavenged from the shells of nearby department stores, searching router by router, server by server. Exploring the city by day and scanning the radio frequencies by night (never venturing out for more than two days at a time, lest my absence trigger the virtual dead-man switch programmed into my laptop – forty-eight hours of inactivity, and the old girl would boot up, connect securely and send you this email; I wasn’t going to risk that happening by accident).
I was scanning every “live” machine left in the centre of my ruined capital, looking for evidence. My task wasn’t the easiest, considering that I was searching computer networks in a city essentially firebombed into the ground. There was no power infrastructure left, and all above-ground networks were completely fried. The particular servers I was looking for also possessed the only three qualities that could have saved them in the first place. They had to be important enough to have their own long-term power backup; this was essential, as it had been six years since the power went out. They also needed to be in a hard site, a room internally cooled and fireproofed, probably underground. They also needed to have underground fibre-optic cables sheathed in protective casings.
Only three kinds of organisations possessed computer infrastructure of this nature; foreign embassies, banks and the military. Since all the embassies had dismantled their machines and bugged out a month before the bombings began, and bank computers had all mysteriously grown legs another month before that, it left only government buildings as the target of my search.
On one of those computers was an order; The order. The order sent from the General himself. The order that changed the course of fifteen million lives. Somewhere in this ruined city was a computer server with a copy of the original order telling the armed forces of Zimbabwe to level their own capital city.
This bombing campaign would then be blamed on groups fighting the military junta, thus giving cover to a much wider, more brutal national campaign of suppression. Wide scale detentions, disappearances and official murders followed, all based on a monstrous lie.
Baba had known about the order the moment it was given; a loyal friend in the General’s circle had leaked it to him, sealing his own fate and your grandfather’s in the process. Knowing the full horror of what was about to be unleashed, he had tried arranging a meeting with the General to convince him not to go through with it. Reading his papers, I think he knew he would never survive such a meeting.
Baba drove to the new government complex in Mount Hampden, staffed completely by army personnel, and was never seen again. But like the shrewd businessman he had been for most of his life, the old man had a contingency plan. My mother was whisked off to Tanzania, returned to her homeland forty-five years after she had left as a bright-eyed young schoolteacher on the arm of a returning war hero; I imagine her striding into her ancestral home, still stern and regal even while pushing the stroller of her two-year-old grandson.
As your mother and I fled to Chegutu that same afternoon, I had no idea that I had somehow managed to lose both my father and only son on the very same day.
You were growing so fast when last I saw you, I could barely believe you were the same little bundle born into so much strife. The night you burst into the world was the first time my father was “invited” to meet the General; the first in a series of meetings that would culminate in baba’s disappearance and the subsequent destruction of our home.
The helicopters had swooped down out of the warm night, descending on our quiet little town like eagles after prey. At first they were nothing but a low rumble in the distance, like distant thunder, the menacing portent of a storm on the way.
As the sound drew closer, I began to pick out the unique auditory signatures of each chopper; each machine made a slightly different sound, and at a certain distance you can tell when there’s more than one.
This isn’t some VIP shuttling around the countryside, I thought; this could get interesting. I called out for your heavily pregnant mother, who was pottering about the kitchen, playing the dutiful daughter-in-law while I tended the fire with the other lads.
Christmas parties with the folks were always like this. We’d drive the 100km westwards out of Harare, happy to be out of the bustle, away from the daily bullshit that comes with life in a capital city. We’d always arrive late with proceedings in full swing, either a by-product of that legendary rebellious streak of the only child, or some juvenile need for attention.
And with a pregnant muroora in tow, things were always bound to get interesting. Gossipy aunts and nosy neighbours, all in one place, fussing over your mom, slapping me on the back, demanding to know when the wedding will be. Yes, parties in Chegutu could be taxing, and this one was to be the most uncomfortable yet.
The party had gone as expected; your mother bore the attention like a sweet little trooper, and I hovered on the periphery, drinking hard liquor with my uncles and talking football. I made myself useful, manning the overloaded braai-stand, churning out criminally over-done beef at an impressive rate.
The day wore on; the drunken speeches fizzled and died, the dancing became more laboured and the drinking more frenzied. I found myself having conspiratorial little side chats with people from my past. Old neighbours congratulated me on the coming baby. My primary school headmaster thought I had picked myself a pretty one.
Old friends made lewd jokes involving condoms and needles, and my drunken uncles kept winking like giggly little school-kids. As darkness fell on our now-tiny gathering, I found myself a part of the natural separation at such affairs. The younger women retreated to the kitchen, some cleaning, others cooking, all talking. I joined the circle of men around the fire, chatting in sometimes hushed tones about finances, school fees, the cost of living; anything but the sporadic clashes happening all over the country between an increasingly harassed army and an ever-bolder resistance.
That was when the soldiers first came for your grandfather. The multiple rotor blades lifting off from the nearby secondary school must have disturbed your nine month long slumber, because you immediately decided to fight your way into the dawn of a spreading civil war.
I spent years trying to survive the destruction of the capital along with most of our assets, building a new life in our now-bustling little town. They were rough and painful years, the early ones spent trying to absorb and house the bedraggled, almost never-ending stream of refugees from the freshly-destroyed capital. Thankfully, the surrounding farmland remained largely undisturbed, so eventually food and shelter was found for everyone who needed it. Everybody basically ate what they killed, as long as they only killed corn.
I worked the textile factory and the cotton gin like an old hand, keeping us afloat while trying to ignore the constant stream of troop movements south-west down the main highway. I managed to stay out of both debt and war, until I received a package from your grandmother, right on the fifth anniversary of baba’s disappearance.
It was a plain brown envelope containing a hard-shelled flash drive, a framed photo of you waving to the camera in oversized shorts on your first day of school, and a note written in the clear rounded script of a life-long educator.
My son, I did not leave you to be safe – your father insisted I go. I am well, and you will be pleased to know that your boy is too. On this disk are your father’s papers and a secret that will shake you to the core. He was a tough man, but he loved you, and trusted you with this knowledge. I know you will do the right thing.
He left behind these instructions, with evidence the order existed, and told me what to do with the proof of the crime.
It was my job to find this proof, son. Now that I am dead, the task is yours. It may be years before you get this, or it may be tomorrow. I have left directions to this place; if by chance my remains are nearby, do not bother burying me. Toss me in the nearest basement and be done with it.
Your grandmother was ever a devout worshipper, and I do not doubt she has instilled the same faith in you. There may be temptation to give me a decent burial, particularly if you have found my tracker (and your mother’s) as I have instructed in the attached message. Ignore the urge to engage in ceremony on my behalf, as whatever soul I have would have long left my mortal remains.
Instead focus on the task at hand and finish the job your grandfather began. We three are all there is between the continued tyranny prevailing in our motherland, and I hope you will one day tell this story, our story, the secret legacy of your family, to an audience of grandchildren of your very own.
But to do this, you must abandon all ceremony and proceed with haste to do all that is contained within; first to ensure the safety of your mother, if she prevails, and secondly to succeed where your father has failed.
I have the utmost faith in you, and the only advice I think you may need, besides never to kill a man in your own house, is to be honest – first with yourself, then with everyone you meet.
Don’t forget to open the attachment, your mother does that sometimes.