ORONO, Maine — Jestina Mukoko believes her native Zimbabwe can break its long history of political violence, but only if the perpetrators of that violence are held responsible for their actions.
Mukoko spoke about “Political Violence in Zimbabwe: A Curse or an Age Old Culture” on Thursday in Memorial Union at the University of Maine. She is the 2010 Human Rights Fellow at the Oak Institute for the Study of International Human Rights at Colby College in Waterville.
“I think Zimbabwe is capable of charting its own way, but we must deal with this issue now,” she said, referring to violence. “Simply saying those who were my enemies yesterday are now our friends, as President Robert Mugabe has said, is not enough.
“That is like putting a thin covering over a wound,” Mukoko continued. “Under that thin covering, the wound is still festering. In the same way the doctor will act and clean a wound, which does involve a lot of pain, but the truth [about past violence] needs to be told so victims of violence and the perpetrators can find peace.”
Mukoko is executive director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, a nonprofit agency that monitors human rights abuses throughout the African country, according to information provided by UMaine. The project’s reports provide the international community with assessments of human rights abuses, including violence against women and politically biased distribution of food, and were deemed particularly crucial during the violent 2008 election period.
Members of the group monitor election-related violence throughout the country, Mukoko said Thursday. She believes that her work monitoring the brutality of the Robert Mugabe government was what led to her abduction from her home on Dec. 3, 2008, by state security agents, according to information on the U.S. State Department website. During her 21-day abduction, she was tortured, beaten and forced to confess to a crime she did not commit, the website says.
After Mukoko appealed her arrest through the court system, the Zimbabwean Supreme Court finally ruled on Sept. 28, 2010, that state security forces had violated her human rights to such an extent as to warrant a permanent stay in the prosecution of the case against her. A concurrent civil suit is still pending.
She said Thursday that the coalition government formed two years ago with Mugabe as president and his former opponent Morgan Tsvangirai as the country’s prime minister has made some economic progress in Zimbabwe. Mukoko said an election scheduled for mid-2011 is too soon, but the leaders have grown impatient with their power-sharing agreement.
Mukoko will return home at the end of the month, when the semester at Colby ends. She said Thursday that while she is worried about more election violence, she is just as worried about the disenfranchisement of voters.
“As I head back home, I only hope and pray that I will be allowed to continue the work that I do,” she said. “This is the only way I can give back to Zimbabwe for the support they rendered during the ordeal I went through. I know that there are thousands who don’t have the advantages I’ve got. I want to amplify the voices of Zimbabwe [that] don’t have those advantages so the world will know what happens there.”
Zimbabwe native Patricia Sithole (pronounced sit-HO-lei) teaches English at UMaine and is working on her doctorate. She and her son, 26-year-old Mwashuma Sithole, came to hear Mukoko speak and to thank her for speaking out for others who cannot.
The family moved to Maine about 12 years ago. Both said Thursday they were aware of Mukoko’s work in their homeland.
“I feel she is a voice for us back home,” Patricia Sithole said. “When I see a person like her, it is encouraging that progress can be made. She’s an inspiration for me.”
Mukoko was one of 10 women named 2010 International Women of Courage by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. At a March ceremony in Washington, Mukoko accepted the award on behalf of herself and other awardees. A copy of her remarks is posted on the State Department website.
“By accepting this award bestowed on the 10 of us,” she said, “we confirm that women have a place in the fight for equality and justice, as this award we believe actually belongs to the multitude of women we work with and some we honor posthumously today because they are no longer with us, having died fighting the good fight.”
Mukoko also spoke Thursday at the Bangor Public Library. Her appearances in Bangor and Orono were sponsored by UMaine’s School of Policy and International Affairs.