I’m lying face down on the bed at the surgery in Nyanga. Earlier this morning I was bucked off my horse and have torn my elbow open and cracked a rib. Dr Chirumba is cleaning my wound without any anaesthetic. He uses firm wipes with cotton wool soaked in stingy Betatine solution to prepare it for stitches. I don’t want to cry so I distract myself with conversation.
‘Do you know there are mad war vets in Troutbeck?’ I ask, with my face turned away so he can’t see my scrunched eyes.
‘No I don’t,’ he replies in gentle disbelief.
I don’t care and continue ‘Well there are – you can tell who they are when you pass them on the road.’
Dr Chirumba reaffirms his lack of such knowledge.
My interest in war vets has been stirred by last week’s phone call from Jeremiah one evening. He was the caretaker of a cottage I do holiday bookings for. His boss, John Philp who is in his early eighties together with his wife and labour lawyer, had driven up that morning from Harare to dismiss him for repeated misconduct and he had turned fierce.
‘How are you madam?’ Jeremiah asks me loudly with nervous excitement.
‘Fine,’ I say, suspecting some unpleasant words to follow.
‘Fine? Well you better watch your back because I’m sending war vets with guns to shoot you!’ Jeremiah shouts viciously.
‘That’s fine,’ I say and cut the call.
I’ve been told three times this year by my haematologist that I’m going to die soon and have learnt to become quite numb when threatened with such a possibility.
‘Jeremiah is sending war vets to shoot me,’ I tell my family and sit back on the couch.
Susie, my cousin who is visiting from Cape Town has just been reading the book, End of the Spear to our daughters, my mum and me. After hearing my announcement, she closes the book just as the Inca tribe are about to spear the missionary father on the beach. This is the last time we hear the story.
Later that night I hear Susie in her bedroom urgently teaching Psalm 91 to her daughter. I already know it off by heart.
Jeremiah has also threatened to send Zanu-PF members (the ruling party) to burn John’s cottage down. We will go to the police station the next morning to report him.
We arrive mid morning at the police station on the outskirts of Nyanga town. The empty parking area is covered in white sand but John chooses to park on the grass under a fir tree. We walk up the steps into a small dark room with cement floors and beige walls. There is an old wooden counter dividing the room with a slatted bench for visitors on the one side and a desk for the charge officer on the other. The walls are covered in reminders of the services and duties of the ZRP (Zimbabwe Republic Police).
The charge officer standing behind the desk looks the age of a school boy and barely greets us. John hands him Jeremiah’s termination agreement, explaining yesterday’s saga. The charge officer is not responding, then without saying a word, sits down at the desk and starts drawing columns in an exercise book. We are left standing at the counter watching him. I am trying to deduce whether this has anything to do with our case. Then my hope fades and I realise this may be a waste of time – why would they care about war vets killing me? I’m just a tiny speck in Zimbabwe, part of 1% of the population, practically extinct – hence the joke ‘Save the whito’.
Three new charge officers enter the room, one lady and two men. Perhaps they have all come in from having their teatime. John approaches them with the termination agreement and again explains the details of yesterday. They gather together and study the document, the one in the middle reads it slowly and out loud. John is getting restless as we have been waiting for half an hour to find an officer to accompany us to Jeremiah’s village and bring him in for questioning.
The officer goes off and comes back with the Sergeant on duty. For the third time the document is being read as John is explaining yesterday’s events once again in great detail, when I desperately interrupt.
‘Jeremiah is sending war vets to shoot me.’
After all, this isn’t about how much Jeremiah got paid out or that John’s cottage might be set alight – this is about my life being threatened. The paper on the wall says a Grade A call is when there is danger to life, violence is being used or threatened, or a crime is likely to be committed.
They all look up, look at each other; some leave the office – some stay. Something is happening but I’m not sure what. John and I are told to sit on the bench. I can tell John’s patience is running out so I temporarily distract him.
‘How did you meet your wife?’ I ask quickly.
John sits back and begins his story with ease, ‘My Annie came out from Cornwall to visit her cousin in Salisbury. I had a young girlfriend at the time whose father wouldn’t allow out to a dance which was going to be held at the clubhouse, so a friend of mine said he knew just the girl for me to take.’
I’m looking at John, trying to imagine him back in those days. He is a tall, lanky man with pale blue eyes, tackie wet lips, grey hair and sun spots on his face.
He has become approachable and tells me about the farm he grew up on in Karoi which was passed onto him by his father. Then after Independence, in the early eighties when farms were cheap as people were leaving the new Zimbabwe, he bought the farm next door. His four sons and their families farmed with him until both farms were taken by the government during the farm invasions which started in 2000. War vets (actually youth who have never been in war) were used to intimidate the white farmers to leave their farms without being compensated for their land, homes, furniture or farming equipment. They left the whole lot.
John returns to reality and realises we are still waiting for the constable to arrive. He stands up and hangs over the counter to address the charge officer.
He takes off his glasses, ‘You see this eye – I have just had an operation,’ he says, pointing to it. He puts his glasses back on. ‘I can’t drive at night; I need to get back to Harare before dark.’
‘I understand but we are waiting for him to arrive, he has gone to another job and will be here soon,’ replies the officer.
After two hours of waiting, the constable arrives by foot. Transport amongst the police force is scarce. He is a slim man dressed in casual clothes, with a quiet authority and seems unmoved by John’s frantic hurry to get on the road. A uniformed police officer accompanies us together with the constable and we briefly discuss the highlights of the case as we walk to the car.
They sit in the back seat reading the termination agreement while John tears up the mountain in his Pajero, calculating the time he will eventually leave for Harare. Just to make sure the officers have influence if I ever need them, I ask ‘Are war vets above the law?’
‘If you commit a crime, it doesn’t matter who you are – you will be arrested,’ the constable assures me.
For a moment my confidence is briefly restored in the police force as that wasn’t true during the farm invasions. In most cases the police weren’t prepared to protect the farmers as they said it was political.
I am dropped off at home, as it is suggested that I don’t accompany them to the village. One of the workers from the property we stay on is standing at the kitchen door talking to my mother. He has come to inform her that Jeremiah has been spreading rumours about me at the market place where the locals sell their goods and the drunkards hang out. Jeremiah has told the people that I have told him to take his Zanu-PF T-shirt off because I am MDC (the opposition party). He was trying to stir a crowd to come and toyi-toyi (a dance used with chanting to intimidate) outside my home but apparently the war vets regret their past atrocities during the farm invasions and 2008 elections and some have turned mad because of it.
John phones me the next morning. They stayed over at the cottage as it was too late to drive back to Harare. Jeremiah was not at home yesterday so the constable left a message for him to report to the police station. John asks if I knew where the termination agreement was. I told him I put it between the seats in his car once the constable had read it.
‘Well it isn’t there. I’ve turned the car upside down,’ he insists.
His wife grabs the phone ‘Are you sure it wasn’t left at the police station? John is so forgetful, I told him not to lose it, we don’t have a copy and the lawyer said we must guard it with our lives. Perhaps the police took it?’
My heart sinks, ‘Why would the police take it?’‘
‘You just can’t trust any of them,’ Anne tells me.