Ellen Chademana, a receptionist at Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), has written a frightening account of being arrested and tortured on a trumped-up charge of the possession of pornography. She, along with another GALZ employee Ignatius Muhambi, was arrested following a May 2010 police raid on the LGBT rights group’s Harare office.
An additional charge of “undermining the authority of or insulting [the] president” because of a placard that made a critical reference to President Robert Mugabe was not pursued by prosecutors. Both were acquitted on all charges by the courts; Muhambi in July and Chademana in December. It is believed that the raid and arrests were little more than quasi-official harassment against the LGBT community in Zimbabwe where homosexuality remains illegal – with penalties including jail-time.
Imagine spending your birthday surrounded by hostile strangers, with no decent clothing, no access to sanitary wear, in a cold and extremely filthy place, with human excreta all over the floor and being subjected to the most inhumane treatment.
May 21 2010 will always remain etched in my memory. As I recollect the events of that day I’m filled with so much pain. What started as a beautiful Friday afternoon ended in horror for me.
I remember leaving the GALZ office after lunch since we work half days on Friday. On this particular day I was on weekend duty together with a colleague, but I decided I would leave early then come back later after running a few errands.
It all started with a phone call from the security guard at the office informing me that, during my absence, police armed with a search warrant had raided the offices. I decided to call the Director who was out of the country on a business trip at that time. I narrated everything that had transpired.
When I heard that the detectives had left I decided I would go back to the offices. Just as I was heading back, I received another call. This time it was the police who said they needed me to come to the offices to answer a few questions. They assured me that it was nothing serious and that I should not panic.
After about twenty minutes, I received another call from a detective urging me to hurry since they were still waiting for me. This time, I became confused; it was very cold but I felt hot, I couldn’t think straight and I had so little time and so many things running through my mind.
I phoned the Director again and notified him what that police had said. He advised me to call a lawyer. I tried the lawyer’s number but he was not reachable. I quickly phoned my partner who was in South Africa at that time and told her what was happening.
As I got to the office my heart was pounding. I was sweating and my mouth was dry. My instincts told me that that something just wasn’t right. As soon as I parked my car, three police officers pounced on me – all coming from different directions in movie style. They asked me if I was Ellen Chademana, to which I said yes. They quickly confiscated my cell phone and dragged me into the office.
They were very aggressive and asked if we were dealing in dangerous drugs and pornography at our offices. When I told them we did not do such activities, they accused me of lying. They told me that during their search they had found pornographic pictures and a DVD in the office.
“For six days and six nights I was in this hell. I suffered torture, harassment, verbal attacks and humiliation whilst in police custody…”
They also claimed to have found material that was undermining the authority of the president. I was told that my colleague Ignatius Mhambi was also being taken to Harare Central Police Station. This was around five in the evening. I could not call anyone since my phone had been confiscated and I felt very vulnerable because no one from my family knew of my whereabouts.
During interrogations, the police said they wanted names of all GALZ members. When I told them that I didn’t have that information, they told me I was being arrested. At that point I saw my whole life crumbling; I needed someone to pinch me and tell me it was just a dream.
I told them I was diabetic and since I had not eaten anything I needed to make a phone call and ask my brother to bring me something warm to wear and food. They were not bothered. It was not until I showed them my Medic Alert bracelet that they allowed me to make the call.
A few hours later my lawyer arrived at the station but was not allowed to talk to me at that time. I was taken to the cells and was ordered to remove my shoes, belt, bra and to choose what to wear: my sweater or my t-shirt. So I chose the sweater because it was really cold.
It was a nightmare being in those filthy cells; with no toilets, no windows and no water to clean-up. There was urine all over the floors and so I wore plastic bags as shoes. There were about 15 women in the cell, most of them sex workers. The fact that I was on my monthly period in such an environment made it even worse.
The first night, some police officers came to our cell and rudely said: “Mahure simukai mumire, mumutsetse” (all prostitutes stand in a queue). I remained seated. this did not go down well with an officer who came to me and asked why I had not heeded his call. I told him that I was not a sex worker. He got angry and started shouting and threatening me. It was not until another officer came to my rescue that he left.
For six days and six nights I was in this hell. I suffered torture, harassment, verbal attacks and humiliation whilst in police custody. I felt dirty, victimised as I was stripped of all my dignity. Every night the police would call me into their office and question me about my love life and my partner; where she was and her name. They also insisted on having all the GALZ members’ names.
When I told them I didn’t have such information they became violent and I was subjected to torture. I would be forced to squat for a long time. If I tried to sit they would hit my knees with bottles. I finally decided to give them false names. I was really scared of what they would do to me. I also asked a friend of mine to pose as my husband when he came to visit me in the cells.
Given the negative coverage of homosexuality and homophobic speeches being made by politicians and religious leaders and the events in Malawi prior to my arrest I was uncertain what was to become of me. During the whole time, my partner could not be with me because she stays in South Africa. She could not even phone me. It was stressful, frustrating and very scary.
May 27 was the day I was granted bail by the courts; a day of freedom and joy. The day I finally got to sleep in my bed and took a bath.
I realised how I had missed the simple things like the sun and running my own bath. I had also been robbed of an opportunity to celebrate my birthday. As a result of all the frustration and stress my partner at that time decided to call it quits. This experience took away so much from me, but it also made me realise that I am stronger and that there’s a greater power above.