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bleeding wound: Zimbabwe's slow suicide
Extracted from Dissent Magazine, Fall 2007
Circa October 2007
known as the "jewel of Africa," as Samora Machel, the
Marxist president of Mozambique, told Robert Mugabe when the new
nation won its independence in 1980. As the second-most-industrialized
country on the continent, the former Southern Rhodesia already had
a decent infrastructure, including roads and railways ("You
were lucky to have had the British," another Mozambican leader
told Mugabe, no doubt wistfully); an energetic, talented, book-hungry
populace; and democratic institutions such as a relatively free
press and a functioning judiciary. The problems, of course, were
immense: there was the need to recover—economically, psychically,
spiritually—from over a decade of brutal civil war; and there
were vast disparities between whites and blacks in wealth, education,
skills, and land ownership. But in addition to having had some historic,
manmade luck, Zimbabwe was naturally lucky, too: beautiful, mineral-rich,
and astoundingly fertile. Zimbabwe's vast, sophisticated commercial
farms were ingeniously irrigated and passionately tended; they produced,
and often exported, fruits, flowers, peanuts, grains, tobacco, cotton,
coffee, poultry, pigs, and some of the best beef in the world. Doris
Lessing, who was raised in Southern Rhodesia, called the country
"paradise," and she is among the least sentimental of
This year, Zimbabwe
ranks number four—perched between Somalia and Chad—on
States Index of Foreign Policy magazine. Zimbabwe's catastrophe
is so multilayered, its paradise so lost, that to describe it is
a daunting task. Mugabe's government has tortured, raped,
and killed opposition activists; closed newspapers; jailed journalists.
But not only opponents are targeted. In 2005, in an operation called
"drive out the rubbish," the state forcibly evicted
an estimated 700,000 black, mainly poor city dwellers: burning their
homes, destroying their businesses, savagely beating them. Zimbabwe's
human-rights score on the Failed States Index equals Iraq's;
only Sudan is worse.
The country's once-promising
economy is in a grotesque free-fall. Beginning in 2000, most of
the country's commercial farmers, who were white, were driven
from their lands, violently and without compensation; hundreds of
thousands of black farm workers have, consequently, also lost their
homes, livelihoods, and access to medical care—particularly
devastating in a country where at least one-fifth of the population
is HIV-positive. The newly appropriated farms, many now in the hands
of Mugabe's cronies, lie in ruins: and so in what was once
the breadbasket of Africa, famine looms for millions.
rate is the highest in the world: as of late June, it stood officially
at 4,500 percent and unofficially at 9,000 percent, though both
those figures will in all likelihood be obsolete by the time you
read this. (The U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe has predicted that inflation
will reach 1.5 million percent by the end of the year, which conjures
images of Weimar-era wheelbarrows stuffed with cash; last year,
the government estimated that a family of five would need seventeen
million Zimbabwean dollars—per month—to survive.) Four
out of five Zimbabweans are out of work; a quarter of its citizens,
including many of the most skilled, now live abroad; and thousands
of Zimbabweans stream each week into a none-too-welcoming South
Africa in search of food, jobs, and asylum. This summer, in a belated
response to the inflation—which, bizarrely, he has blamed
on Britain—Mugabe imposed dramatic price controls; this led
to panic buying, closed stores, and production shutdowns. Armed
youth militias were sent to patrol the markets and threaten shopkeepers.
health care system, combined with AIDS and poverty, have produced
a life expectancy for women of thirty-four years: shockingly, the
world's lowest. (Equally shocking: it was sixty-one years
in 1991.) On the political front, Zimbabwe's judiciary and
electoral processes have become bitter farces, the rule of law is
virtually nonexistent, and its corruption is considered startling
even on a continent known for kleptocracy. The World Bank has called
Zimbabwe's woes unprecedented for a country not at war, while
the International Crisis Group has, ominously, compared its meltdown
to that of the Congo at the end of Mobutu's rule.
For a calamity of this
magnitude, there can be no one cause. Zimbabwe experienced two wrenching
years of severe drought in the early 1990s. At the same time, unwise
structural readjustment programs, imposed by the World Bank and
the International Monetary Fund, led the country to sell its grain
reserves in search of foreign currency; the confluence of these
factors couldn't have been worse. In the 1980s, Zimbabwe was
surrounded by the destabilizing forces of violence and failure—in
Angola, Mozambique, Namibia—much of it fueled by the apartheid
regime in South Africa; this deepened an already paranoid style
of governance. Still, however complex Zimbabwe's recent history
may be, every discussion of its ruin centers, always and inevitably,
on one factor: Robert Gabriel Mugabe, head of the country's
ZANU-PF party and Zimbabwe's president for twenty-seven years.
As the Failed States Index report points out, "Though many
events—natural disasters, economic shocks, an influx of refugees
from a neighboring country—can lead to state failure, few
are as decisive or as deadly as bad leadership."
tendencies—and his murderous ones—were evident early
on. Just two years after his election in the country's first
multiracial vote, he unleashed a reign of terror against Matabeleland,
a province in the southwest that he suspected of housing a dissident
movement. The word "genocide" has been used to describe
this assault, which lasted five years; it may or may not be accurate,
but there is no doubt that tens of thousands of unarmed civilians
were beaten, raped, starved, and killed in a merciless scorched-earth
policy. And from the first, the ruling party's rapaciousness,
combined with its sense of utter impunity, was startling to outside
observers and native citizens alike; one United Nations official
remarked on the rapidity with which Zimbabwe had created a "boss
class . . . to the accompaniment of Marxist rhetoric."
But the early years under
Mugabe were full of good things too. Even as Matabeleland was massacred,
the rest of the country hummed with hopeful energy, and literacy
zoomed to almost 80 percent: an astonishing figure for Africa. (Lessing
writes that on the day the education budget surpassed that for defense,
members of Parliament "cheered and wept.") Mugabe's
policy of racial reconciliation was rare and inspirational; an early
speech welcoming all citizens of the new nation as friends and allies
is "still remembered," Philip Gourevitch wrote, "as
one of the great declarations of the age." There is no doubt
that the vast majority of Zimbabweans, especially in the rural areas,
trusted Mugabe and, in many cases, loved him; as Lessing noted,
"Never has a ruler come to power with more goodwill."
Mugabe's descent into unrestrained tyranny, and the bizarre
wreckage of his country, were not inevitable: one can easily imagine
very different scenarios that are neither fantasies nor wishful
thinking. This makes the country's destruction even more bewildering,
infuriating, and tragic.
IN HIS NEW BOOK, When
a Crocodile Eats the Sun, the journalist Peter Godwin paints a portrait
of an imploding Zimbabwe that is alternately tender and furious.
But it is a portrait that is also startlingly, almost willfully,
partial, and it sent me looking to Zimbabwe's complex past—exactly
the place Godwin refuses to go—in an attempt to understand
its present despair. And to try, too, to find voices other than
those of Zimbabwe's liberal whites—not because their
views are wrong or unimportant, but because there is much that they
cannot tell us.
Godwin was born and raised
in Southern Rhodesia; his mother was a doctor who often worked in
the countryside, his father the manager of a mine. They were tolerant,
and progressive, and they knew that white rule was wrong. So did
their son; still, as he recounts in his first memoir, Mukiwa: A
White Boy in Africa, he fought for Ian Smith's apartheid government.
Duty was considered a higher value than individual conscience; and
anyway, an eighteen-year-old Peter naively promises himself when
he enters the war, "I wouldn't do anything I disagreed
with or was ashamed of."
This would prove to be
untrue—all the more reason, at war's end, for Godwin
to welcome ZANU's triumph and the end of Zimbabwe's
international isolation. "I reveled in that brief and liberating
period of social anarchy that marked the change between societies,"
he recalls. "I loved the bizarre mix of people. The Scandinavian
sandal brigade and the Third World groupies, the sudden flood of
communist diplomats . . . .The cultural boycott was over. . . .Now
Bob Marley performed at our independence celebrations." But
disillusion arrives quickly: Godwin becomes one of the first reporters—and
risks his life—to expose the Matabeleland massacres. (An old
black woman, whose name Godwin never learns, tips him off: "You
must write about this thing in your newspapers, otherwise it will
never stop until all of us are killed.") Appearing in the
Sunday Times of London, Godwin's exposés infuriate
the government, which declares him an enemy of the state. On the
eve of arrest, he flees the country.
But it is the little
details of Godwin's early childhood in Rhodesia rather than
the dramatic later events in Zimbabwe that are the most engaging
parts of Mukiwa: for it is in these details that the complexity
of life, and of human relations, in a racist regime are revealed.
We see how inequality—how difference—looks to a child;
the injustices peek through, so there is no need to shout about
them. "We had cook boys and garden boys, however old they
might be," Godwin writes. "We knew them just by their
Christian names, which were often fairly strange. . . .They believed
that having a name in the white man's language would attract
the white man's power. . . Sixpence, Cigarette or Matches
were commonly used. . . . Baby girls were often called after the
emotion felt by the mother at birth—Joy, Happiness, Delight.
But, as far as I know, there were no girls called Disappointment,
Pain or Exhaustion."
Godwin spends his early
years roaming the countryside with his nanny, Violet, whom he dearly
loves; unbeknownst to his parents, he even joins her Apostolic sect,
whose revival meetings thrill him. And he trails his mother as she
makes her rounds (there were, of course, separate clinics for blacks
and whites), helping to dispense sugar-cube vaccinations. (Years
later, as a reporter in Mozambique, Godwin's life will be
saved when the fierce guerrilla who captures him turns out to be
a grateful former patient.) We watch a young Peter begin to notice
his world, and to try to make sense of it: "White people didn't
get such interesting diseases as Africans. They sometimes got ill,
and even died, but this was rare."
In his new book, the
childhood idyll is long gone. Godwin, who now lives in New York,
charts the decline of his country, and of his parents as they age,
and the ways in which the former makes the latter so much sadder
and scarier and worse. This is a book written in bitter anger: Mugabe,
Godwin writes, is "the man who would grimly turn his country
into an African Albania rather than relinquish power." And
disappointed sorrow: "A people who once rose against white
rule and joined guerrilla movements in the thousands has now been
Godwin offers a panoramic
look at a crumbling nation. There is the human-rights collapse,
epitomized by a hospital full of wounded protesters, including "middle-aged
black ladies" beaten by Mugabe's thugs. There is the
explosion of crime, forcing his parents to install a "rape
gate" to protect against violent intruders—though his
father is viciously carjacked anyway. There is, most crucially,
the takeover and ruin of the once-proud farms by drunken, unskilled
youths; and the rigged, indeed absurd, elections: " ‘I
shan't be voting for Mr. Mau Mau,' says Dad."
GODWIN is especially
sharp, and heartbreaking, in evoking his parents' descent
into penury (their pensions aren't adjusted for inflation).
In one scene, at a bakery, "Dad loads his little basket with
a small selection of loaves, which he will later freeze, and, as
a special treat . . . two croissants." The total: Z$12,000.
"The black shop assistant manages to look sympathetic and
embarrassed at the same time. . . . Dad slowly counts out all the
notes in his wallet but they fall short. . . . He points to one
of the loaves, and she removes it. . . .But the total is still too
much, so he hands back the rolls one at a time." Through it
all his parents, then in their seventies and ailing, remain modest,
level-headed, sane. They insist on using the public hospital rather
than seek out special treatment; they hold hands like teenagers,
"murmuring to each other like new lovers"; most of all,
they refuse self-pity. Godwin is lucky to have such folks.
Yet some of Godwin's
most vivid scenes are also the most problematic, and raise questions
not about what he sees but about what he doesn't. One day,
Godwin drives his father to a grocery store to collect bottle-deposit
refunds. "Our line sullenly watches these diplomats and black-marketeers,
expatriates, and corrupt government officials packing their Pajeros
and Range Rovers and Mercs with mountains of groceries," he
recalls. The point is well-taken; yet Godwin seems unaware that
this is precisely what blacks must have felt about his parents,
and virtually all other whites, in the pre-independence days. In
another vignette, white farmers at a pre-departure party speak of
the "great life" and "good fun" they have
lost. But Godwin doesn't stop to think that for most blacks,
the former dispensation was probably not great, or good, or fun.
Godwin is right to insist that the politics of resentment that Mugabe
has fomented—evidenced most clearly in the farm takeovers—are
both practically destructive and morally ugly, and should never
be mistaken for justice. But he seems loath to acknowledge that
the vast inequities between blacks and whites, both before and since
independence, were both unsustainable and wrong.
Another striking scene
takes place at Godwin's sister's gravesite. (She had
been killed, at age twenty-seven, by "friendly fire"
during the civil war.) The cemetery is a shambles, and apparently
people now live, or at least farm, in it: dirty toilet paper is
littered among little plots of maize. Coming upon his sister's
grave, Godwin finds a fresh mound of excrement. " ‘Fuck
this!' I shout, and I hurl the flowers away. . . .It lands
near two women who are bent over, hoeing their cemetery corn, their
babies strapped to their backs. They stop their hoeing, look up
for a moment . . . and one laughs."
is not only justified, but bracing. Who would not feel the same?
Yet there is something puzzling about his lack of interest in the
women's plight. What does it say, what does it mean, that
women must raise their food, and their babies, among graves? To
ask this question is not a matter of political correctness or pity,
nor does it suggest that Godwin should mute his rage. It is a matter
of broadening one's perspective, of expanding one's
sightline, of synthesizing one's personal reactions with the
realities of the wider world. The critic Vivian Gornick once observed
how George Orwell, in "Shooting an Elephant," "shrinks
from the natives, yet his repulsion is tinged with compassion. At
all times he is possessed of a sense of history, proportion, and
paradox." This is precisely what Godwin too often lacks.
When a Crocodile Eats
the Sun contains another story, too. On one of Godwin's visits
home, his mother abruptly reveals a secret about Godwin's
father, a man of propriety and deep reserve who had always struck
his son as the quintessential Englishman: "George Godwin,
this Anglo-African in a safari suit and desert boots, with his clipped
English accent." But it turns out that George Godwin was actually
Kazimierz Jerzy Goldfarb, and Kazimierz Jerzy Goldfarb was a Jew
from Warsaw whose mother and sister were murdered at Treblinka.
Naturally, this sends
his son—who, as an expatriate white from Africa, is already
struggling with his "mongrel" identity—into a
tailspin. Large chunks of Crocodile chart Godwin's search
for his father's family's fate, and his more general
research into the Holocaust, about which he apparently knew almost
nothing. But Godwin attempts, also, to synthesize his father's
history with the present realities of Zimbabwe, and this is where
the book falters most. Because Godwin fails to discover, or to formulate,
any organic link between the destruction of the Jews and of Zimbabwe,
he slips into a series of sloppy, fundamentally misleading analogies.
"A white in Africa
is like a Jew everywhere—on sufferance, watching warily, waiting
for the next great tidal swell of hostility," Godwin claims.
Well, no. Mugabe's treatment of the white farmers is utterly
indefensible: they were terrorized and sometimes assaulted, and
an estimated fifteen were killed. But Harare is not Sderot—much
less Warsaw in 1939. And more than that: can it be that Godwin has
forgotten, so quickly, the violence and inequities of Rhodesia's
white-supremacist regime? Earlier, and in a similar vein, Godwin
writes that Zionism "resonated too closely with my white African
narrative," and that Israel's similarities to apartheid-era
South Africa are "uncanny": a truism of the Southern
African left. But this comparison, too, mistakes discrete parts
for a much wider whole, and therefore clouds rather than illuminates
reality. Godwin substitutes hyperbolic, emotionally charged parallels—a
"this equals that"—for the difficulties of real
LIKE PETER GODWIN, Alexandra
Fuller came of age as white-led Rhodesia was bloodily transformed
into majority-rule Zimbabwe. (Her family also lived in Malawi and
Zambia.) The Fullers were the kind of riff-raff that the Godwins
probably never met. Fuller's mother is a drunk, and she belly-dances
in bars, and her hands are "worn, blunt with work: years of
digging in a garden, horses, cows, cattle, woodwork, tobacco."
Alexandra's father is rough, though very good with guns—"Dad
is away in the bush, fighting gooks"—and the parents
refer to blacks as "Affies," "cheeky kaffirs,"
and "bloody baboons." Their house is ugly, their food
disgusting, and their land so bad that when Mugabe appropriates
it, he gives it to an enemy. In the Fullers' garden stands
"an enormous cardboard cutout of a crouched, running terrorist,"
which the family uses for target practice.
And whereas Godwin, as
a child, spent long hours listening to the stories of the black
servants and reverentially absorbing their wisdom, Fuller, known
to her family as "Bobo," is a brat who bosses them around
while threatening to fire them. Paradoxically, though, Don't
Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, far more than Godwin's
books, sings with a lush, raw love for Africa. Fuller is close to
the feel of the dirt and the things that grow in it, to the shrieks
of the animals and "the smell of people who are not afraid
to eat meat," to the pitilessness of the sun and the fury
of the rains.
of observation are so trenchant that she suggests a world, or sometimes
several worlds, in a few sentences. Also, she has a nice and useful
feel for the incongruous. "There go the horses, two white
faces and one black peering over the stable doors . . . And here
come the dogs running, ear-flapping hopeful after the pickup. .
. .And there goes the old cook, hunched and massive . . . He is
almost seventy and has just sired another baby; he looks exhausted.
He's sitting in the kitchen doorway with a joint the size
of a sausage hanging from his bottom lip . . . .The gardener stands
to attention on his bush-broom, with which he is sweeping leaves
from the dusty driveway. ‘Miss Bobo,' he mouths, and
raises his fist in a black power salute."
The Fullers are not lucky.
In 1974, when Alexandra is five, they move to a farm in a bad location,
"right into the middle, the very birthplace and epicenter,
of the civil war in Rhodesia and a freshly stoked civil war in Mozambique.
. . . We erect a massive fence with slanting-backward barbed wire
at the top." Although they work very hard, they do not prosper;
the commodity price of tobacco rules their lives.
But their real bad luck
lies elsewhere. Alexandra's mother gives birth to five children,
three of whom die before they are toddlers. It is the second death—for
which Alexandra blames herself—that tips her mother from wacky
neurosis into something closer to madness. Like Godwin, Fuller tries
to understand the connection between her family's trauma and
her nation's. Ironically—precisely because she is less
"political" than Godwin, and because she tells her story
through a child's eyes—she is more successful at allowing
us to feel her sense of that terrible bond between personal and
"After Olivia dies,
Mum and Dad's joyful careless embrace of life is sucked away,
like water swirling down a drain," Fuller recalls. "The
war and mosquitoes and land mines and ambushes don't seem
to matter." The parents drink constantly and the family, carrying
"our new, hungry sorrow," takes off on a grief-stricken
holiday. "So we drive recklessly through war-ravaged Rhodesia,"
Fuller writes. "We are driving through a dreamscape. The war
has cast a ghastly magic . . . .Everything is waiting and watchful
and suspicious . . . .The only living creatures to celebrate our
war are the plants, which spill and knot and twist victoriously
around buildings and closed-down schools. . . Rhodesia's war
has turned the place back on itself."
After the third child's
death, "things get worse," and Fuller's mother
has a breakdown. For Alexandra, the center cannot hold in either
home or world—the war is over but the violence continues—and
she watches a dance of disaster unfold. "[Mum's] is
a contained, soggy madness, which does little more than humidify
the dry, unspoken grief we all feel. But then the outside world
starts to join in and has a nervous breakdown all its own, so that
it starts to get hard for me to know where Mum's madness ends
and the world's madness begins. . . .The world is a terrifying,
unhinged blur and I cannot determine whether it is me, or the world,
that has come off its axis." It is Alexandra's older
sister, Vanessa, who finally explains the simple, prosaic truth:
"Bad-luck things happen. That's just the way it is.
. . .It doesn't mean anything, Bobo. . . .If you start thinking
that bad luck comes all together on purpose or that it has to do
. . . with you or with anything else, you'll go bonkers."
There is cruelty in that randomness, but perhaps a glimmer of freedom
DORIS LESSING left Southern
Rhodesia for London in 1949, when she was thirty; as a member of
the Communist Party, she had been declared a Prohibited Immigrant
by the government in Salisbury. She returned to Zimbabwe for the
first time in 1982, and visited again in 1988, 1989, and 1992. Of
her initial exile, she recalls, "I did not want to live in
Southern Rhodesia, for if its climate was perfection, probably the
finest in the world, and its landscape magnificent, it was provincial
and tedious." But, she adds, "These rational considerations
did not reach some mysterious region of myself that was apparently
an inexhaustible well of tears, for night after night I wept in
my sleep and woke knowing I was unjustly excluded from my own best
of Zimbabwe is the richest of any that I know. Here is the "moment
of social evolution" presented from a dizzying array of angles.
Lessing shows us the "triumphant malice" of whites eagerly
pointing to black failures, and the hopefulness of those who want
to help the country prosper. She meets black villagers desperately
yearning for work, for literature, for the life of the cities; and
she observes former guerrillas, now government "chefs,"
who have "taken to thievery as if born to it." She tells
of the students who shout "Tiananmen Square!" as they
protest government corruption. She watches the visitors: international
aid workers traipsing in and out of the country, and South African
soldiers on holiday who "have had to forgive themselves too
much." She sees the squatters, too: angry, ignorant, destroyers
of the land they covet. She admires the idealistic organizers mobilizing
women in the villages, who remind her of the early Russian revolutionaries.
And she finds an odd parallel of arrested development: whites, she
writes, were drowning in childish self-pity, while blacks were in
thrall to a fantasy, equally childish, of instant modernity, instant
wealth, instant justice.
What Lessing encounters,
again and again, is a country of complexity, contradiction, and
movement: a country in the midst of remaking itself. The stakes
are high, the expectations even higher, the outcome never overdetermined.
Lessing loved Zimbabweans' sense of "intense personal
involvement" in the country's future, so different from
the ironic apathy of the West. Despite the country's daunting
problems, she wrote in 1988, "what came across was not the
flat dreary hopelessness of Zambia, the misery of Mozambique, but
vitality, exuberance, optimism, enjoyment. . . . Relish. . . in
the unexpected, was very much the note of new Zimbabwe."
Lessing discovers something
else too, something subtler and deeper and harder to bear. Again
and again she finds people—mainly blacks, though not only
they—stunned and grief-stricken by the war, yet unwilling
or unable to explore their bewildered pain. "It is not possible
to fight this kind of war, a civil war, without the poisons going
deep," she observes. "Something has been blasted or
torn deep inside people, an anger has gone bad, and bitter, there
is disbelief that this horror can be happening at all." Zimbabwe
was reeling from violence, brutality, betrayal, yet determined to
refashion itself without acknowledging its wounds; its development
was predicated, in fact, on the repression of trauma. Lessing listens
to a young ex-guerrilla named Talent who says, in a rare moment
of exposure, "I was lucky, I wasn't one of the pretty
girls"—for the pretty ones were used for sex. Lessing
continues, "But it seems the War has never really left her:
she has terrible headaches and sometimes cannot move for days. .
. .A war ends, you bury the dead, you look after the cripples—but
everywhere among ordinary people is this army whose wounds don't
show: the numbed, or the brutalized, or those who can never, not
really, believe in the innocence of life, of living; or those who
will for ever be slowed by grief."
THIS IS THE TERRAIN that
the black Zimbabwean writer Yvonne Vera explores in her novel, The
Stone Virgins. (Vera died two years ago, at age forty.) It is set
in Matabeleland during the massacres: "Then independence arrived
and brought with it a spectacular arena for a different war, in
which they were all casualties." Brutality's tenaciousness,
and its mystery, is Vera's subject.
The Stone Virgins reads
like a slow-motion atrocity film. Its central act is a horrific
rape and mutilation—the victim's lips are sliced off—by
an ex-guerrilla named Sibaso of a village girl named Nonceba. (Sibaso
also decapitates Nonceba's beloved sister, Thenjiwe.) The
novel, which is highly impressionistic, alludes to the ways that
suffering changes Nonceba, splitting her off from a former, now
irretrievable self: "Now she is alone, the shadow to her own
being. The other is vanished with a sudden and astonishing finality."
Most striking is Vera's
portrait of Sibaso. She has not an ounce of liberal sympathy, or
even liberal explanation, for this monstrous predator. He is a man
who not only loves violence but who needs violence: "If he
loses an enemy, he invents another." He is good at what he
does, for he has honed "all the fine instincts of annihilation."
Most tellingly: Sibaso is "a hunter who kills not because
he is hungry but because his stomach is full, and therefore he can
hunt with grace." He is a man, in short, whose nihilistic
violence foretells the civil wars of places like Liberia and Sierra
Leone, as well as the madness of today's jihadist groups.
He kills not because he is oppressed but because killing suits him;
his sadism is not a cry for help but a shout of joy.
Vera understands that
sadistic violence not only shatters but actually unmakes the world
of the survivors. In one scene, a group of government soldiers carefully
skins alive an Indian shopkeeper, then massacres all the customers,
including children, in his store. She writes: "They committed
evil as though it were a legitimate pursuit, a ritual for their
own convictions. Each move meant to shock, to cure the naïve
mind. The mind [is] not supposed to survive it, to retell it, but
MOST OF US accept the
fact that violence is sometimes necessary in the pursuit of political
aims; all of us feel comforted by this fact. For if violence has
an aim, it has a limit. The violence itself may be obscene, disgusting,
criminal; the aim might be impossible or unjust. Still, this kind
of violence has not seceded from cause and effect, claims and demands;
Primo Levi described it as "hateful but not insane."
But the violence that
"cures" the mind, which is to say negates it, is something
different. This is the "curing" that took place in Auschwitz,
and several decades later in the hills of Rwanda, and it was the
aim, I think, of the rape camps in Bosnia. This is what Levi called
"useless violence": the infliction of unbearable pain,
humiliation, and suffering, just for its own sake and no other.
It is a kind of moral autism. Unburdened by tradition, by politics,
by consequences, it claims for itself an absolute freedom.
In The Stone Virgins,
Nonceba wonders "what exactly it took for a man to look at
a woman and cut her up like a piece of dry hide without asking himself
a single question." It is we who must ask this question, especially
in this age of martyrs' brigades and suicide-killers. And
yet the answer, I think, may be impossible to come by, for the very
texture of such violence defies reason. (This is why, Jean Améry
claimed, in Auschwitz it was intellectuals who were particularly
defenseless.) It is wishful thinking, for instance—and an
odd sort of narcissism—to believe that the torture-carnage
that has swept through Iraq will end if America pulls out its troops
(though that might be a good idea); or that the thirst for martyrdom
will be quenched if Israel pulls back her borders (though that might
be a good idea). The cult of suffering and death, the exultation
in suffering and death, does not necessarily answer to traditional
Rwanda or Cambodia or Sierra Leone. Yet in thinking of its ruin,
I am haunted by Lessing's warnings about the hidden poisons
of war. One can't help wondering if Zimbabwe would, or at
least could, have become a very different place had it found the
space, the means, and the courage to delve into the violence of
its birth. Those wounds that "don't show" have
revealed themselves, and they bleed.
Susie Linfield is the
director of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New
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