The word “autogenocide” came to English from a French coinage in the 1970s, meant to convey the self-slaughter of Cambodia in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge. The category has been a rather lonely one since then, with just a few instances of mass death that were truly self-inflicted, and could not plausibly be explained away as collateral damage in a fight against an outside enemy. The pre-eminent current example of autogenocide is Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and Peter Godwin’s new book The Fear is the most enraging account of what has happened there yet published.
Godwin, 54, is a white Zimbabwean and longtime expatriate, in part because the Zimbabwean government has threatened him with charges of espionage and menaced him in a dozen different ways whenever he has returned. In that way he is hardly unusual: the Zimbabwean government has banished journalists and writers for nearly a decade, and much like Cambodia under Pol Pot’s regime, Zimbabwe has shrouded itself in secrecy and left much of the violence and famine unreported. When I last visited the country in 2001, Mugabe’s attitude could be guessed by the company he kept. I was on the dusty road north of Harare, and government radio warned us all to stay indoors when a trigger-happy armed convoy drove by on its way from Zambia, carrying Mugabe’s honored guest Muammar Qadhafi.
Nowadays, few are lucky enough to get away with a warning. Godwin’s book, written on jittery return visits to his home country, is a series of furtive glimpses at a country that has gone from breadbasket to basket-case, and now to fascist state that attacks enemies, real and perceived, with extraordinary cruelty. Many of these attacks reach a level of brutality that it would be unfair to inflict on the unsuspecting audience of a book review, but suffice it to say that Mugabe’s forces aim to disfigure and kill, ripping apart soft tissues and leaving bones shattered into so many Scrabble tiles. Godwin visits a hospital ward and finds that the injuries are frequently what the doctors call “defense injuries,” generally arms and fingers broken as victims lift their limbs to protect their heads against blows from a crowd. The descriptions of these wounds would in most other books seem gratuitous, but given the absence of coverage from Zimbabwe they are necessary.
The author shows particular concern, predictably, for the situation of his own community, the white Zimbabweans who profited so much from white rule in Rhodesia, and whose farms have been raided, ruined, and occupied over the last decade by “war veterans” encouraged and directed by Mugabe. These white farmers have become, as Godwin says, “political piñatas” that Mugabe can beat, spilling out candies for his constituents. (Again, the Cambodia parallels are striking; Pol Pot targeted ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese, saying the country’s problems lay with those minorities.) Those farms once fed the country: now, their production has all but ceased, leaving black Zimbabweans hungry and the country devoid of exports. Mugabe acknowledges that the country has had a “period of hunger”—an understatement that sounded, Godwin says, as if he were referring to the sort of temporary emptiness one might have if “peckish before lunch.”
As for Mugabe himself, Godwin has little to add beyond the usual dumbfounded awe at the evil he has unleashed, and the moral dementia that allows him to rule on without apparent shame. When he took power, Godwin writes, Mugabe gave signs of genuine reconciliation with, and even affection for, the British patrimony colonialism had left behind—”the Savile Row suits, his fastidious English, his penchant for Graham Greene novels, his admiration for the Queen, especially once she had knighted him in 1994.” Although Godwin does meet and describe a number of Mugabe associates, the best he can hypothesize is that Mugabe is simply senile and mad, and that his pronouncements at this point are little more than “the brain shavings of the dictatorial dotage.”
Godwin’s book won’t be the last about Zimbabwe’s collapse, and there are huge parts of the story untold. He offers little analysis, just extended reportage, loose and unstructured, as a series of glimpses must be. (And the glimpses come overwhelmingly from white Zimbabweans—again, a hard skew to undo, given the difficulty of reporting in Zimbabwe beyond one’s most trusted acquaintances.) Godwin makes no predictions for the future; the pessimism is so deep that I am almost glad he doesn’t.
There are two books one longs to read about Zimbabwe, now that this, a creditable journalistic account of some of the ongoing nightmares, is available. One is an account from Mugabe’s inner circle. Mugabe has successfully drawn multiple political henchmen in close, only to discard them; where is the tell-all that explains how he works, and where his mind and morals have disappeared to? The other is the account, not yet able to be written, of Mugabe’s eventual downfall and the reckoning with justice that will have to follow. Mugabe himself is old enough to escape justice by a natural death, but many of his agents will not be so lucky. A white Zimbabwean who had his private parts shredded by a Mugabe agent tells Godwin that he saw his torturer scurry out of a hotel bar when his victim entered. “One day I will take his photo and report him,” says the man. This faith in the eventual functioning of Zimbabwe’s criminal system is optimistic, to say the least, and will not be shared by all. As Godwin shows, the scale of the atrocity is large. And one can expect many who will want to take more from that man than his photo.
Originally appeared in The Barnes & Noble Review.