By Peter Bolder on Special Assignment
I visited the scene of the horrific road accident that occurred along the Bulawayo-Masvingo highway, close to the southern mining town of Zvishavane recently. The accident happened on Wednesday December 30 and I was there within 21 hours, having driven overnight from Harare, 400 kilometres away. News helicopters are banned in Zimbabwe, so we couldn’t rent one and get there quickly, but had to travel the old fashioned way by road, stopping at numerous roadblocks.
On arrival, I was shocked to discover that the police had not secured the scene of the crash, to prevent people from tampering with the evidence. One of the crash vehicles, a Noah, had been towed away, but the wreckage of the other car, a Honda Fit was still there, with people milling around, some stopping their cars to see the aftermath of one of Zimbabwe’s most gruesome accidents.
Six people were burnt to death in the Honda as onlookers watched in horror. According to witnesses, the Honda was hit by the speeding Noah, which was allegedly fleeing from a police road block nearby, and landed in a water drainage ditch on the roadside. Many people blamed the police for demanding bribes from motorists, causing many of them to make dangerous manoeuvres in an attempt to avoid paying kickbacks.
Workers at a nearby construction site who rushed to help the six people trapped in the Honda used axes but failed to open the doors which had locked automatically, ironically, as part of the vehicle’s ‘safety’ precautions. The workers phoned the Zvishavane fire brigade but were told the fire engine had no fuel, a stupid excuse as council workers have been known to abuse the fire engine for public announcements using its public address system. The fire engine has even been seen parked at bars, according to angry residents.
The witnesses told me that the victims spent several minutes trapped in the car. No one thought of breaking the windscreen to get the people out. Then the car suddenly burst into flames, as people watched helplessly.
When I arrived, the roof of the burnt-out car had been sawed off by the fire brigade. On the charred car seats, which were now just pieces of twisted metal, huge flies known colloquially as ‘green bombers’ had started to gather around rotting pieces of human flesh that remained stuck to the metal springs of the seats.
Close by, some clothes were strewn all over, again a testament of the police ineptitude or insensitivity as anywhere, the belongings of the dead are always gathered up to be presented to relatives, even just for memories. A child’s denim dungarees, a red and blue sweater…The force of the tragedy hit me when I saw a size 6 tennis shoe and just wondered what the owner might have looked like. From the cell phone images that I saw, none of the charred bodies was recognisable. In fact, I was told, many of the bodies were dismembered by the fire and the police just threw pieces of flesh and bone into sacks without bothering to separate the body parts.
A worker at Cellmed clinic where the bodies were taken said they looked like ‘mazondo’, boiled cattle bones. She and many others who saw the victims said it would take them a very long time to eat roast meat.
Then, among the clothes, I saw a cream latex glove abandoned by one of the police rescuers. Inside the glove was a half-burnt ten dollar note. I asked some of the people present what they thought could have happened. Some speculated that the policeman who left the glove and the burnt note could have taken money that was not burnt and left the half-burnt note as that could be traced back to the accident. There was no proof of this but it sounded plausible.
“The police are thieves. They always steal from dead accident victims,” said one bus conductor present at the scene. He told me about a recent accident in which his aunt died. He said all her money and cell phones had been taken by the police rescuers and had never been given to the family.
Several other people told me similar stories of large sums of money and other valuables disappearing into the hands – or pockets – of cops at accident scenes. The standard police response is, “Other people got to the scene first. They could have taken the money.”
Witnesses described a very shoddy police rescue effort. Many of the cops had no gloves and used bare hands to haul the dead out of the wreckage, I was told. Then, instead of apologising for the Zvishavane fire brigade’s ineptitude, the chairman of the council, Esau Gwatipedza Dube told a radio station that the cause of the tragedy was ‘overloading’, not the firemen’s failure to respond to the distress call on time.
Through 30 years of journalism, covering death from accidents, disease, floods and wars in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Mozambique, DRC and Angola to the Lockerbie bombing in Scotland, I have learnt to be dispassionate, like a doctor, not to take things personally. But the horror of this accident will remain with me for a long time. I wouldn’t say I need counselling or treatment for trauma. But it will take me a long time to forget the kid’s dungarees, the size six shoe and the abandoned latex glove holding a burnt note.
© Now Daily 2015. All Rights Reserved.
By Peter Bolder on Special Assignment