“We are fine. We are safe”.
My brother’s words over the phone, following a government-sanctioned internet shutdown in my home country, sounded like music to my ears.
On Tuesday 15 January, Zimbabwe experienced a complete internet black-out ordered by the government. Millions of Zimbabwean citizens lost contact with the outside world, some relying on virtual private networks (VPNs) to share information regarding the situation inside the country.
I was one of many Zimbabweans living outside the country feeling confused and panicked, no longer able to get in touch with family, friends and loved ones. I rushed to Twitter to stay updated on what was occurring back home.
My Twitter feed painted a very sombre picture. On Saturday night – prior to the blackout – Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangagwa held a press conference to announce a 150% increase in the price of fuel. Many Zimbabweans were angered and upset.
Much of the population has been struggling with socio-economic hardships from severe cash shortages, fuel shortages, high unemployment rates and dilapidated infrastructures.
A national strike was called for by several trade unions and activists, such as Pastor Evan Mawarire. Unfortunately, the protest strike on Monday was marred by violence against protestors by police and military forces.
It is believed that incidences of looting and vandalism by protestors led to a crackdown by the forces. This resulted in what is estimated to be 12 deaths, and 100 (possibly more) cases of assault on civilians.
Hundreds were arrested following these events. In addition, there has been reports of home invasions and abductions in Harare. The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights, an NGO, says they attended to more than 172 patients in the aftermath of last Tuesday afternoon. They also confirmed human rights violations had been committed. At least 844 human rights violations have been recorded by The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum.
Businesses, schools and industries have been affected by the internet block, causing a further strain on what was already fragile. However, the biggest impact of the internet shutdown has been the hinderance of the nation’s access to information and ability to express themselves – a direct infringement of their human rights. The United Nations states that internet access is a basic human right that enables individuals to “exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression.”
Internet service and social media access has remained unreliable since then. On Wednesday, I was finally able to talk to my family and close friends to check on their wellbeing. My heart was relieved that all of them were safe, but remaining at home as a precaution.
The pain is not over. Many families have lost children, breadwinners, parents during this period of violence and chaos. Many young people continue to exist with no clear direction of what lies ahead, feeling robbed of a future, uncertain of whether they will be able to work, go to school or make ends meet in 2019.
Mental health and physical health is declining for many as their lives are filled with depression, anxiety and poor access to treatment. Others fear for their safety, no longer feeling safe in their country and living in exile – such as Thandekile Moyo who fled after being vocal against the government.
Most tragic of all is that lives have been taken, like that of Kelvin Tinashe Choto, whose murdered body was pictured lying on a police station reception counter.
It is deeply important to me to share what has been happening in my home country of Zimbabwe. We need the international community to be aware of the human rights violations and unjust incidences taking place.
Our voices need to be heard in this time as we cry for help.
Note: the author of this post has chosen to remain anonymous, as there are mounting concerns over the safety of those speaking out on the current situation within Zimbabwe.