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X-rays provide an unsparing look at Zimbabwe political violence

THE WORLD

July 02, 2008|From a Times Staff Writer

HARARE, ZIMBABWE — The doctor points impassively to two X-rays on a screen. One is of a foot fractured in four places, the breaks more severe than if the victim had been run over by a car, the doctor says.

The second is of a leg fractured at the thickest part of the tibia, just beneath the knee. The fibula, a smaller leg bone, is smashed to pieces, says the doctor, who despite eight years' experience with cases of trauma and beatings has never seen an injury like the tibia fracture.

The leg and foot injuries were not the only ones suffered by the two victims, a 41-year-old polling agent for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party beaten on the soles of his feet and a 46-year-old MDC provincial secretary struck with a metal bar. Both had two broken arms and one had broken ribs.

The pair are among the thousands of Zimbabwean activists who were injured in the run-up to Friday's presidential runoff, overwhelmingly opposition party supporters attacked by ZANU-PF ruling party militias and operatives, according to Human Rights Watch. At least 85 opposition activists were killed before the runoff, which concluded with longtime incumbent Robert Mugabe being the sole candidate.

An additional 200 are missing and presumed dead. And roughly 200,000 people were displaced from their homes in the violence, the opposition says.

In some areas, the opposition could not field a single polling agent to monitor the election because of safety concerns.

MDC presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai, who described the election campaign as being like a war, pulled out of the vote because of the severe violence against MDC activists. Mugabe, 84, who had finished second to Tsvangirai in the initial presidential vote in March, was inaugurated Sunday for a new five-year term.

The X-rays convey only the bald medical facts of what happened to two of the many victims, but to a doctor, the pictures speak as eloquently as courtroom testimony.

The doctor, whose name has been withheld because of safety concerns and possible repercussions, describes himself as a man interested in facts, not emotions. He does focus on the biographical details of the men involved, who they were and what were their thoughts and feelings.

"I just write the medical reports," he says. "I try to keep it as objective as possible."

What staggers him is the level of suffering, and the length of time that the victims will continue to feel the pain.

"Every time that person puts his foot down for the next five years, it will hurt," he says.

"You have four metatarsal fractures," the doctor continues, gesturing at the bones in the central part of the foot in the first X-ray. "You just don't get full metatarsal fractures at the same time. It's very unusual. It requires a huge amount of force.

"You could drive a car over someone's foot and if you broke two of them it would be a lot," he says.

He jabs a finger at the X-ray of the tibia injury. "Will you look at that bone? The massive strong part of the tibia has been separated. You just don't get complete severing of the tibia from the knee like that. I could not hit someone hard enough to do this.

"It's an illustration of unbelievable, intentional brutality," he says. "This is not over when the election is over."

The areas hardest hit by the violence were traditional ZANU-PF strongholds that had swung strongly to the MDC in the March vote.

Zimbabwe Doctors for Human Rights, a group of independent doctors, reports that 2,000 people were treated for injuries suffered in political violence in June and more than 5,000 since February. The doctor is a member of the organization.

"One of the most disturbing things is that there is nowhere that people can turn to. You have got no refuge, no ombudsman, no policeman," the doctor says.

He switches off the lighted screen behind the X-rays, takes them down and slides them into two brown envelopes. There are many others like them, he says.

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