Student pens story of hell in maximum security prison

University of Zimbabwe student union Organising Secretary Gamuchirai Chaburumunda was arrested and thrown into the country’s notorious Chikurubi Maximum Female Prison among murderers and robbers for staging a demonstration on campus.

The horrors that the 22-year-old student went through while incarcerated for a month in the maximum security prison are now the subject of a book she is writing. Chaburumunda, a third-year accounting and finance student, was arrested on 8 June 2023 and was granted bail on 9 July. Her case is still pending.

Her crime? Protesting for more than a year against the unjust jailing of lawyer and opposition leader Job Sikhala, a former University of Zimbabwe student leader. Her efforts led to a month in the maximum prison in Harare where she was treated like a dangerous criminal.

App helps to tell the story

Chaburumunda has been posting pages of her book on a WhatsApp group as she writes.

“I started writing the book on the day of my release. The WhatsApp storytelling comes as a way to reach out to as many peers as possible since most of my generation have lost a reading culture. Almost everyone uses WhatsApp so, at least, the story can be told. The chapters on WhatsApp are just a glimpse of what’s to come in the book,” she said in an interview with University World News.

“Fellow students and youth across the country have been really sympathetic but, most importantly, they are understanding why we need to take it upon ourselves as a generation to advocate for everyone’s rights, prisoners included.”

The story that has been shared so far on WhatsApp starts with her arrest on campus which, to all intents and purposes, could pass as a kidnapping. The reader is taken to the Harare central police station where more horrors await Chaburumunda.

“I am a student leader, organising secretary, so obviously I was targeted because of the influence I have on students,” she told University World News.

In the police cells, there were two cement bunk beds, the blankets were dirty and infested with lice. After a night there, she was taken to court and then deposited at Chikurubi Maximum Prison. She said there are so many foreign women incarcerated at Chikurubi, most of them Malawians. These are mostly arrested while on their way to enter South Africa illegally.

Babies, children suffer

At times, the prisoners were stripped naked and searched. “Stripping naked is done to search for any illegal drugs, cellphones or letters. This exercise killed me emotionally because, once, I was forced to strip while on my period,” she said.

Chaburumunda said some women were detained with their children. Some babies were only months old while the older ones went to a preschool at the prison. She said children can never cope with prison life, the inappropriate language used there, and issues of hygiene, among others.

She said she is still haunted by some of the human suffering she saw in prison, something her tormentors wanted her to go through in a bid to break her spirit as a student leader.

In the mornings, she said, they were given porridge that had no sugar or peanut butter, on some occasions they got stale bread a local bakery threw out. Sometimes there were boot prints on the bread. There was no sugar or milk in their tea. In the afternoon, they had boiled vegetables with only a little salt as they were told that salt ‘drives’ sex hormones. Supper was mostly beans, with no onions or tomatoes added.

The prisoners used pit latrines. They had no running water and no electricity. It was always dark in the cells. There were no beds either.

No time to mourn

Death also came knocking at the prison, and a baby died. “Pregnant women and nursing mothers sleep in their own cells. The baby who died was one or two months old, if I’m not mistaken. So, in the morning when our cells were opened, we just saw the mother running towards the clinic with her baby in her hands, she didn’t even have shoes. Other elderly inmates told us that the baby was no more, but mommy was hopeful.

“The prison officers took the mother and baby to an office to wait for the nurse on duty to arrive. The nurse declared the baby dead. I don’t think the mom was given time to mourn. In fact, she was moved out of Cell Three to cells where mentally disturbed inmates stayed,” Chaburumunda said.

Fearless students a threat

But why does she think the Zimbabwean government is targeting students, putting them through hell, as she describes? The answer appears to lie in the nature of the brutal paranoid regime running Zimbabwe.

“Student leaders are intellects who are young, vibrant and fearless, so the regime feels threatened. A fearless group can go to any extreme, and the extent to which student leaders are willing to take their fight is unpredictable. Yes, it will include the persecution of other students in my book, because it has to stop,” she said.

Human rights lawyer Alec Muchadehama, who has represented students since the late 1990s, told University World News that none of these has been convicted, underlining the fact that they are arrested on trumped-up charges.

He said students are arrested for actions that can be classified as student activism which does not call for incarceration. Some of the students who were arrested missed their examinations because the state opposes bail.

Chaburumunda, who was also represented by Muchadehama, was “lucky” as she was arrested on the final day of her exams.

Political pressure suspected

The human rights lawyer said he has noted a shift in the way police treat students. They tend to be hard-handed and also target women students. “It seems the police are acting under political pressure. The authorities want everyone to be quiet to give the impression that all is well in Zimbabwe. The shift to arresting female students is part of a political message that anyone who dares, ‘we will come for you’,” Muchadehama said.

Two years ago, the then Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU) Gender Secretary Nancy Njenge, was arrested for protesting against the arrest of fellow student leaders and was thrown into an overcrowded and unhygienic cell where she contracted COVID-19. Since then, targeting women has apparently become a trend to dissuade other women from venturing into student activism.

In an interview with University World News, Njenge said the arrest of students has taken a gender dimension to block more women from student activism and the strategy appears to be working. She said the arrests are all about persecution and instilling fear.

“To some extent, the arrests have a gender dimension. Women tend to be vulnerable, and we tend to be emotional, so once they arrest us, they instil fear in other female students. Already, we have students who do not want to associate with ZINASU because they fear the government; they are scared of the state,” she said.