Zimbabwe’s Jewish community keeps its head down in the chaos

  • ZimProtest
“Mayhem and chaos reign supreme here,” said a Jewish Zimbabwe resident this week. “It is so scary to be cut off without accurate information or contact. People have no access to doctors or any medication, and don’t know when they will. We have no way of knowing what tomorrow will bring. I was tear-gassed on Friday, I am confined to my home now, and am completely in the dark about what will happen next.”

This woman asked to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal. Zimbabwe has come to a grinding halt in the wake of protests and clashes that have rocked the country this week.

She is just one member of the tiny Jewish community which is weathering the storm. While some Zimbabweans are secure in their homes, others have been caught in the crossfire caused by the looting and chaos erupting across the country.

“We’re an extremely small minority,” says Arnold Joffe, the head of the Harare Hebrew Congregation. “We’re staying put at home, and not venturing out much, because if we do, we can’t be sure if we’ll encounter empty streets or utter chaos. The situation is volatile and subject to sudden change.”

By Wednesday this week, the situation in Zimbabwe was extremely tense. “Opposition and civil society leaders critical of the government are being arrested. The Movement for Democratic Changes’ offices were set ablaze on Monday evening, and the military have moved into the high-density areas around Harare, with reports of civilians being rounded up, beaten, and tear-gassed in their homes,” says democracy and human rights activist Alana Baranov.

She says the wave of unrest was sparked by the first day of a three-day national stay-away called for by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions in response to the deteriorating economic situation in the country. Given the dire situation of most Zimbabwean citizens, the stay-away has become a violent wave of looting and destruction.

Demonstrations turned violent as roads were barricaded, shops looted, and vehicles burnt. “The government shut down the internet on Tuesday in an attempt to quell the protests and inhibit Zimbabweans from organising mass action,” says Baranov.

The lack of communication has also resulted in the proliferation of rumour and misinformation, heightening the fear and panic gripping many people. “Cut off from the outside world, we hear all sorts of rumours,” says the anonymous resident. “I’ve heard that between three and 21 people have been killed in the clashes – there is no exact figure. I’ve also heard that the police are turning a blind eye to looting and, in some cases, even joining in.”

While members of the community may be in their homes trying to carry on as best they can, some Jewish residents are outraged at what is befalling average Zimbabweans. “We’re fortunate to be safe in our homes,” says Bulawayo resident Leah Louth, “but out on the street, there are people who have no roof over their heads and are exposed to danger and violence.”

She continues, “I’ve never seen Bulawayo reach a point like this. The western suburbs are a war zone, yet we’ve had no word from the government. While we can hear the army mobilising and returning to barracks at night, we can’t see what’s going on outside.”

Louth says that the internet shutdown is a particularly heavy blow, as it prevents people from contacting loved ones to make sure that they are safe. It therefore violates basic human rights. “We’re relying on text messages,” she says. “An SMS bundle costs more than a data bundle, and people are too poor to afford them. Children can’t tell their mothers if they’re safe, fathers can’t check where their daughters are. The basic text message has become a privilege.”

She concludes, “[There is] no official communication; the internet service provider was intimidated into shutting down the internet, and people are dying on the streets. This situation is beyond absurd, and yet it hasn’t appeared on any international news station anywhere. What has to happen for this to be noticed?”

Country Communities Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft says the community is “lying low”, and his office has been calling twice a day to evaluate the situation. He has been approached by many South Africans with family in Zimbabwe who have been trying to get hold of them in the communication blackout. “The situation is getting very ‘hot’ for the first time in many years, but we hope for better days,” he says.

Ex-Zimbabwean Dave Bloom received communication from someone in Harare on Wednesday morning who said that the situation was “very worrying and dangerous. The rioting is in the high-density suburbs, the police are breaking down doors, and arresting people without reason.”

Says Bloom, “The army and police are cracking down hard. I suspect people in the community are safe in their homes, but I’m not sure how long that can go on. The old and vulnerable will probably be hardest hit in getting food and medical services.”


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