Cecillia Chimbiri is a human rights activist and Zimbabwean youth campaigner for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) – Zimbabwe’s main opposition party. She is the first female National Youth Vice Chairperson of the MDC and is the Deputy Secretary for the Women's Academy For Africa (WAFA) Southern Region where she represents Zimbabwe.
CECILLIA CHIMBIRI – ZIMBABWE
“We can be agents of change and development.”
Why did you become a pro-democracy activist and politician? I have a genuine desire to see positive change not only in my country Zimbabwe, but also in the whole of Africa. I realized that tyranny, corruption, economic and gender inequality were ills plaguing our country. Political activism gave me the platform to fight these ills and contribute towards the building of a better Zimbabwe. More importantly, as a young woman, I have always been passionate about youth and women empowerment. I want to inspire women and the youth, to show them that we too can be agents of change and development. As women, we have the potential to be great leaders and create change wherever we are. Our government has a long history of using fear and intimidation tactics to cower its citizens into submission. Succumbing to these tactics should not be an option. I believe that it is my duty, our duty, to fight for this country and stir it back to prosperity. Nelson Mandela once said: There is no passion to be found in playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living. These words have been an inspiration in my political journey.
Rose by Daria Sazanovich
“I am driven by an unshakeable belief in the equality of all people. I love my country and I strongly believe that we can return Zimbabwe to democracy and turn our economy around.”
What motivates you personally to work for democratic change and for free and independent elections in Zimbabwe? I am driven by an unshakeable belief in the equality of all people. I love my country and I strongly believe that we can return Zimbabwe to democracy and turn our economy around. Free and independent elections give citizens the power to choose their leaders. A government chosen by the people is accountable to the people and bends to the will of the people. Zimbabwe has not experienced free and fair elections in a long time. We need to fight to give power back to the citizens of Zimbabwe. Due to your work and pro-democratic political visibility, you experienced something terrible last year. Would you like to share with us what has happened? 2020 was a difficult and heart-breaking year for me. The Covid-19 global pandemic came at a time when the health sector in Zimbabwe was already on its knees. As a political activist, I joined other opposition leaders in taking to the streets of Harare to protest the government’s failure to provide for the poor during the lockdown. We wanted to bring to the government’s attention the plight of the youth, women and the elderly who had been hard hit by the lockdown. Carrying placards, we went to Warren Park to stage a flash demonstration. We arrived at the venue to find it already swarming with people, most of whom, we believed, were infiltrators, as well as heavily armed riot police and soldiers. We assumed that the police and soldiers were there to ensure that protesters did not violate Covid-19 protocols and that they would soon leave. After about 10 minutes, teargas was thrown into the crowd. I remember running to hide in a nearby house I knew belonged to MDC supporters. After about 30 minutes, things seemed to have calmed down so I left and started looking for the people I had come with. We discussed our exit strategy from what still appeared to be a dangerous zone for us. We agreed to return the way we had come, assuming that the police would expect us to evade capture by going the opposite direction. We were so wrong. Just after passing a Covid-19 checkpoint near the National Sports Stadium, we noticed a van that was tailing us. We were stopped at another checkpoint and asked to present letters authorizing us to be on the move during a lockdown. We gave them our letters. Before we could drive off, a car drove up behind us and flashed its lights. Two police officers disembarked, came to our car and told us that we had been identified from photos of the protests in Warren Park and that we were under arrest. We drove towards Harare Central police station. I was laughing on the way, a coping mechanism I had adopted in the past whenever I got arrested. My mother called me just as we were about to get to the station, having received the news of my arrest. Not wanting to stress her, I told her that everything was under control and she need not to worry. When we got to the station, the police told us to park outside and get into their van, which had been driving behind us. We asked to wait for our lawyers but they said the lawyers would be told to follow us. The van had no seats at the back and had darkened windows, so we could not see outside. Once we were inside, I noticed 3 more men already inside the van. They made us lie down as we drove away, supposedly back to Warren Park police station. After a while I realized that we had been driving for too long to be going to Warren Park. I realized that we were likely being abducted as the van increased speed. I was so scared I could not speak or move and at this point one of the men pinned my head to the floor with his big foot. When we got out of the van, all I could see was an old half-finished building and long grass everywhere. We walked through the building to a deep dark hole. Using torches for light, the men forced us down the hole. I was so scared at this point I wished they would kill me quickly. The men started beating us with a rope, telling us to re-enact what we were doing at the protest. We were cold and shivering, with no idea when this torture would end. (…) I was so tired I lost track of time. I could no longer tell what time or day it was. I do not remember falling asleep, but I might have fallen asleep in between beatings. (…) At one time I woke up to find one of the men tearing my clothes off my body. I still remember his evil filled face sneering at me. (…) I was so scared because I thought they were going to kill us. We were forced back into the van and made to lie on the floor as before. We drove for what felt like two hours, with no idea where we were headed. I was tired and kept dozing off. The car came to screeching halt. The door was opened and Netsai, who was sitting by the door, was thrown out of the car. I screamed, thinking they were going to run over her with the car. Instead, they started the car and drove off, leaving her in the middle of the road. As the car sped off, they threw Joanna out and I heard her body hit the road. The car slowed down a bit then I was also thrown out, then it sped off and disappeared. (…) It was cold and dark outside so I could not see clearly. I could hear cries in the distance. I tried to stand but that proved difficult. I dragged myself until I was standing. Seeing as I was now able to walk, I thought it best to go and seek help. I looked around and there was not a single house in site. I started walking down the road until I came across a cabin. I went and knocked on the door and it was a while before the occupants responded. They were reluctant to open the door for me as it was in the middle of the night and I could have been a thief. They asked me a lot of questions before finally opening the door. God bless them! (…) We had no choice but to spend the night. Because the cabin was too small to accommodate all of us, the owners made room for us in their chicken coup and we went to sleep. We woke up to find help had arrived. MDC Alliance leaders arrived with the police and our lawyers. They quickly took us to the hospital. I was abducted and detained against my will. I was beaten and sexually abused. I am so lucky to be alive today thanks in part to social media efforts that kept our disappearance in the limelight such that our abductors, feeling public pressure, let us go. I am not the first person to be kidnapped but I do not wish this to anyone. The government has denied any involvement in our disappearance. We reported our ordeal to the police but our case was never investigated. Instead, we were accused of faking our abduction and faced further harassment. […] I believe that a day is coming when the truth will come out and we will be free. (…) I have not narrated my ordeal to anyone since May 2020. I have been going for counselling to help me heal emotionally. I still break down when I recall the cruelty I suffered that day. It is still hard for me to give the full details of what happened to us. I appreciate the opportunity to share some of what happened to us. Can the crimes be described as a breaking point in your life? No. My ordeal has not deterred my resolve to fight for change in Zimbabwe. In fact, it has left me stronger and more determined. I am here today because of the immeasurable support from the media, from fellow Zimbabweans and the international community. I have also received a lot of support from my psychologist. This tragedy did not break me but has turned into a defining moment in my life. Yes, I was angry. I was sad. I was disappointed. But I have taken all these emotions and turned them into positive energy that has kept me all the more focused on the fight ahead of us. I now see this as a mere hurdle in my fight for justice against human rights abuses obtaining in our country. When I was in the hospital, I seized the opportunity to share my story. I believed that the world needed to hear what happened to us. I was under the illusion that telling my story would expose the cruelty of the Mnangagwa regime. I thought that for the first time, the police would launch a thorough investigation into our abduction and torture and the perpetrators would be brought to book. I naively believed that exposing our ordeal at the hands of state agents would ensure that this never happened to anyone again. How wrong I was. Things only got worse for us. We were accused of faking our abduction and publishing falsehoods prejudicial to the state, the same state which was responsible for our suffering. State orchestrated abductions are continuing with impunity. The motive behind these abductions is clearly to scare off government critics, to prevent people from protesting against the Mnangagwa government. I will not give in to fear. I will not give up. I will not break. This is only the beginning for me. We need to continue fighting wherever we are and whenever we can. Human rights defenders are not a distinct professional group, they are distinguished by their actions. What are your most important activities in defending human rights? Protests are mainly what I use to speak for the people. Political activism is also a tool I use to register human rights violations. I also use social media to fight against human rights abuses. I have active Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. I use these platforms to keep the spotlight on human rights abuses and to fight for positive change. I believe in the power of numbers. I continue to share my story as the government continues persecuting me. I have garnered a lot of support through social media. Human rights defenders like you are considered to be the eyes and ears of the international community to the human rights situation in their society. To what extent does this description apply to you? I use my platform as a political activist to raise awareness on human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. In the past year, following my abduction and torture at the hands of state agents, I have used social media to bring to light human rights abuses that continue unabated in Zimbabwe. I have spoken strongly against human rights abuses that include torture, arbitrary arrests and detention, evictions, and lack of access to proper health facilities among others. I gather information on human rights abuses around Zimbabwe and share them on my social media platforms. I want the world to know what is happening in Zimbabwe.