It has been an amazing experience to say the least what with living in Johannesburg, South Africa as the city and country continue to struggle to find their way in post-apartheid times and journeying every now and then to Zimbabwe to assist democratic political and civic leaders.
Zimbabwe recently held elections on Saturday March 29 which were closely watched throughout the world where many Zimbabweans hoped and believed there would be a change in leadership given the rapid deterioration in the political, economic and social situation in the country over the past ten or so years. While there have always been
suspicions of wide-scale fraud related to past elections no one has ever been able to substantiate these claims.
Through our assistance to domestic civic groups, local citizens were able to provide projections on the presidential election two days after the close of polls. These independent and non-partisan projections were soon carried by all the major news outlets in the country, region and internationally and for the first time provided Zimbabweans with the information showing that president Robert Mugabe had indeed not won. Some of you may know that the government has still not announced results more than two weeks after election day but it is certain that the regime was caught by surprise in more ways than one.
On Thursday March 3 2008, I went to Harare International Airport planning to board a flight back to Johannesburg. I was detained at the airport by security and intelligence officers and taken to their downtown headquarters.
An interrogation then continued for more than 22 hours by different teams trying to build a story around a western conspiracy to rig the elections in favor of the opposition.
The experience was nothing short of something I had only read about in books or seen in movies what with sleep and food/water deprivation as well as repetitive questioning and verbal harassment. That said at no time was I ever physically harmed. Although I was assured at numerous points during the interrogation that I would be released this never happened.
Following the intense questioning by security and intelligence, I was taken to police headquarters where I was made to wait for another five hours while the criminal investigation division determined why I had been detained at the airport.
It was at this time that I saw the Pulitzer prize winning journalist from the New York Times, Barry Bearak as well as another British journalist who had both been arrested during police raids the previous day. It was also the first time I saw a lawyer and a representative from the US embassy.
I was released on my recognizance that night but forced to report back the following morning to determine whether any charges were to be leveled against me.
The next day was a waiting game for more than 12 hours where no one knew what was going to happen from one minute to the next. This process continued for the next four days as I was assured that the ‘information’ that I had provided was checked and corroborated.
On the fifth day, I was released and my passport returned to me with no explanation except a remark from the chief superintendent that charges could have been brought. Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say that I had been caught up in the fluid politics of the country that were playing out in the aftermath of the elections.
At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, let me say that while I have studied and worked on issues related to democracy for many years now, this was the first time I experienced what exactly that word meant.
It was my own personal unlawful interrogation and detention where I began to understand what freedom and liberty are actually about. It is also true that in hindsight, had it not been me but a Zimbabwean that had been detained, this story would have been written differently.
At the end of the day, while this experience is personal it is also part and parcel of the history of Zimbabwe and more importantly the struggles of its people.
Through this ordeal, I cannot express enough my gratitude to the board and staff of the National Democratic Institute as well as numerous folks at the state department and in Congress in Washington, DC as well as the US Embassy and USAID in Harare, Zimbabwe that went above and beyond the call of duty in working for my release.
And of course, a heartfelt and sincere thanks to all of you who sent your thoughts and prayers to me during this trying time and of course to those who organized to do more – it did make a difference if not for any other reason than it kept me positive.
Finally, to my family and in particular my father for whom situations like this for better or for worse have been the norm for the past few decades – much, much love.
Dileepan Sivapathasundaram, a U.S. citizen and senior program officer with the National Democratic Institute (NDI), was released by Zimbabwean authorities in early April after being detained illegally for six days. He is now safely out of the country.
His email is [email protected]