Malawi violence: July 20 What I witnessed
Personal account of July 20, 2011
Sunday: July 16: A vehicle belonging to Zodiak Broadcasting Station is smashed in broad day light by seven men with hummers and panga knives. A colleague who is at the scene calls me and gives me details. Zodiak confirms.
Monday July 17: Another ZBS vehicle is torched at around 11pm. I am called by colleagues at the station around midnight.
Tuesday July 18: DPP Youth cadets are seen in Blantyre brandishing machete in public. This is under the laws of Malawi an offence as machetes are considered as ‘dangerous weapons.’ Police take no action and the ruling DPP spokesperson backs them up.
11pm: Some unidentified man calls saying Chiza Mbekeani has been granted an injunction stopping the demonstrations. I confirm the same with Court clerks after doubting its authenticity. I ask them to drop it at Area 18 filling station as they insist on trying to get it to me at night.
06:15: I arrive in town with a colleague Brian Satha who will be taking videos for Maravipost.com. There is heavy presence of Police. Police sources tell me they have been ordered to stop the demonstrations due to the injunction obtained by Chiza Mbekeani.
6:32: Ali Mwachande of MANERELA calls me that their vehicle carrying PA system has been detained by Police as it was heading to start up venue. I rush to the scene where Ali together with NONM officer Iliyaas Itimu are there alongside Gift Trapence of CEDEP.
7:02 am I speak to Mwachande and later take his picture. Police advice Trapence to go to the station but not head towards the starting area. As I try to take a shot of Police negotiating with Trapence, a Policeman confiscates the camera. I reason with them, the officer is adamant.
I call the National Police spokesperson Willie Mwaluka, he promises action but nothing happens. The only Police officer whose name was visible is Brian Chikalakala, the rest are hide their numbers and name tags.
I leave the post for Lilongwe CCAP where the organizers are meeting.
7:34 I depart Lilongwe CCAP for Lilongwe Community grounds the start point of demonstrations where some youth have gathered. The organizers want to address the marchers about the postponement of the programme.
Police stop the organizers who include Gift Trapence (CEDEP), Peter Chinoko (CCJP), Benedict Kondowe (CSBQE) and others before crossing to Community Centre. The debate heats up as Police insists they should not address the group. The group is asked to go into Police vehicle. I am ordered to do the same despite my clear identification that I am a Journalist. After consulting a senior officer I am allowed to travel by my own vehicle.
We arrive at Police and we are taken inside the station to an open space inside the building. We are told nothing for 20 minutes before the Regional Commissioner of Police appears and takes the groups leaders for private discussions. The discussions last another 40 minutes and we are told after a detention of 55 minutes that we are free to go.
8.52am: The Civil Society convoy leaves Lilongwe Police station via old town to Community Grounds. The stand by crowds cheer and chant anti-establishment songs following the vehicles. We arrive at Lilongwe Community ground at 9.00 am to a huge crowd of demonstrators.
9.03: Trapence and Malawi Congress of Trade Union Secretary General Robert Mkwezalamba address the crowd, asking them to wait for a legal process as their lawyer is challenging the injunction. The crowd accepts but demand that they remain at community to wait for the Court process.
9.14 A Police officer in PMF uniform slaps JOY RADIO Journalist Rabecca Chimjeka who is trying to record the protests chants. I protest to his senior and the crowds start singing louder asking the President to resign.
9.16 The PMF officer in charge asks for Teargas, his juniors try to plead with him that they have no sticks and gas masks and it would be better to leave the crowd there, the Officer-In-Charge asks them to shut up. And orders them to chase the crowd. Billy Mayaya of CCAP Church and Society is mercilessly beaten by two PMF officers though he went into the crowds to plead with them to stay quite and go home.
9.19; The crowd react angrily to Billy Mayaya beating and starts stoning the Police. Police fire Teargas and hell breaks loose. One officers rushed to where media personnel are standing and beats Freelance Journalist George Thawe on the hip for times. I shout at him that he is beating a Journalist he answers back, “we are looking for you. We all start running towards the Calvary Family Church.
Police follows the crowds which is running away from them without any retaliation. A Land cruiser full of Policemen comes where we are standing asks us to leave the area as we were “too many Journalists” which looks like we are demonstrators.
I ask for an officer to escort us from the area to a different safer place as other Officers on the main road have been sending us back. The officer says we will be safe.
9.34: In a group of about 11 Journalists we walk towards Lilongwe CCAP. The Police are throwing teargas everywhere. We cover our faces with handkerchiefs. We witness a Police officer chasing unarmed man by foot for a distance of 200 meters. The man manages to outpace him. A tear gas canister is thrown at a group of people who were watching our movement.
9.40: We seek sanctuary at Lilongwe CCAP church and witness a Policeman wearing a DPP T-Shirt and brandishing a Panga knife. The Police men who are four in total later harass Guardian Journalist Emmanuel Simpokolwe, we have to shout from the fence that he is a Journalist working for the Presidents newspaper for them to let him go.
10.14: I together with several Journalists including Freelancer Chancy Namazunda, Emmanuel Chibwana of ZBS, George Mkandawire and three others leave Lilongwe CCAP church for patrol of the streets now looking like war zones of Bengazi or Misarata. Tyres are burning and huge stones, tinned shops and used vehicles are being used by protesters as shield to cruising riot Police vehicles.
Teargas is everywhere but Youth coming from the direction of the Phwetekere and Falls, attack and set fire Government vehicles. Police are forced to retreat as the angry youth send back the tear gas canisters.
Police shoot in the air and one of the youth estimated aged around 15, starts running away and crosses the road towards Police houses; children of Police officers catch him up and starts beating him mercilessly.
Four hefty built officers come to the scene and instead of picking him up, the join in beating him while dragging him. He bleeds from the nose and mouth. A Police vehicle arrives and the thoroughly beaten you is chained with a Police sniffer dog.
We take the direction of the city’s business area Malangalanga road, the place is quite and officers patrol. As we near Lilongwe’s Bwaila hospital, we meet a group of people carrying a patient, they say Police threw tear gas near the Hospital and Nurses have abandoned the hospital. The guard at Hospital gate refuses us entry.
11.03 A Red Cross vehicle is seen picking up a person eye witnesses claim was shot by the Police. Police officers on duty near the Town Hall refuses to be interviewed and ask us to leave. We oblidge.
11.34 At Malangalanga gates of ADMARC area we find smashed vehicles belonging to car breaking dealers who put up a sign pots: The Home of DPP. One gentleman has a cut on his head, he is wearing T-Shirt. He calms the protestors targeted them. A security guard says they provoked the demonstrators. Five shops belonging to spare part dealers are also smashed.
• Reports of full riots in Chisapo, Area 23 and Kawale emerge as people call from all parts of the Capital.
• Sources inform me that the Lawyer who obtained injunction is unlicensed.
• Senior DPP officials claim ignorance of the injunction- I file the same to my editors.
12.27; Going through Falls, Phwetekere we arrive at Mwenyekondo Primary, a huge crowd is emerging from the M1 main road near Biwi Triangle. We take cover at the market. We have some home made chips and tomatoes for lunch. Water is not safe and we cannot find drinks.
We walk to the Triangle where over 2,000 young people have gathered. They have lifted a minibus from Lilongwe Auctioneers to the M1 road where the torch it. The Auction House belongs to the Minister of Information and Civic Education Symon Vuwa Kaunda. The mob stops us from taking photo’s and asks us for ID. They are happy Zodiak and Nation are available to cover their demonstrations but will not allow pictures.
The mob chanting anti-Mutharika songs, torches the building down as others run away with various items including fridges and mattresses. Someone shouts Police and everybody scampers to safety, No Police vehicle appears.
12.43 We go towards Blantyre as the who road a stretch of 3km is closed. This is the main road into the Capital City from the Commercial City of Blantyre, heavy logs, burning tyres and graffiti is all over the normally busy road now patrolled by thousands of protesting youth.
We reach Sunrise Pharmacy owned by Mulli Group of Companies, it has been torched down and people are still taking goods away. A colleague who works for Channel 4 All Nations Chiukepo explains that the angry mob descended on the building accusing it of belonging to DPP officials.
The larger group starts singing and chanting and moves towards direction of Blantyre as we hear Police sirens. More tear gas is thrown by the Black riot van known as ‘nyala’ around Biwi/Area 22 junction. Police are said to be rushing to Area 24 where angry protestors are torching down the Police station.
14.20 The media crew takes the route via Chidzanja road, where looters are sharing Herbal tea from a Chinese warehouse. They tell us the Chinese man shot in the air irking the crowd that was near Biwi triangle. Interestingly all petrol stations are intact and some shops and workshops including MP for the other side of the area Bhagwanji.
We pass through Upper Biwi pubs where people mob us and demand that we identify ourselves. They cheer us as we tell them our media houses and allow us “to pass freely and report that we are tired.” We visit the looted shop of Honourable John Adams Wells, MP for the area where smoke is still coming out. An eye witnesses say other shops belonging to a Rwandese national were not torched. Only the DPP MP’s shop.
We walk back to Lilongwe CCAP compound via Mchesi town where smoke is thick and at least four Police houses have been attacked. We find a group of Police officers helping their colleagues leave the area.
14.50: We enter our sanctuary, the Lilongwe CCAP Church compound where for the first time we find Opposition Malawi Congress Party spokesperson Nancy Tembo, MCP Deputy director of Women Dorothy Chirambo and Vice Presidents sister Anjimile Mtila Oponyo.
14pm: Reports indicate that the Courts have evacuated injunction and Civil Society Leaders at the Church compound want to address a press briefing on the developments. My colleague at the court Bright Sonani says they are on their way to Area 30 headquarters to serve the Police the same.
14.20: The Civil Society leaders agree to wait for the signed copy of the court order which arrives with pomp and cheers in a red Toyota corolla vehicle.
14.34; a Police black nyala crosses in the main road and does not stop. It returns and passes again heading for Lilongwe Community centre direction.
14.41: The Civil Society group starts to get organized, Journalists conduct random interviews when a electricity palls starts hitting each other producing fire. Everybody comes together and at the main gate Police arrive, they start jumping the fence as guard refuse them entrance.
14.45: A PMF officer asks us who were are, we say we are Journalists, he say were too many to be Journalists asking us all to go and sit down together. We are harshly bundled together with Civil Society leaders and surrounded by Police pointing guns at us.
Jacob Nankhonya, photographer of Blantyre Newspapers Limited (BNL) is pushed down on the sand as he tried to sit on a clean stone. He is told he cannot choose where to sit.
The hostile Police officers stop Billy Mayaya from reading Court order, saying they do not listen to ‘useless people’ and ask all of us to leave the Church premises. We remind them that they said it was not safe to be on the streets either, they start pushing us with guns to leave.
We head for the main gate. As we reach the gates, a white Police landcruiser arrives with PMF and General Uniformed Police officers.
The Officer shouts, these are the ones causing trouble deal with them. One young PMF officers gets a huge stick at the gate and says “we should kill them now” and a woman officer claims “they are the ones torching our houses.”
I tell the PMF officer that some are Journalists and just doing their work, he says we should isolate them and should produce ID, but another shouts, “They are the ones causing problem. Lets start the ones wearing red.”
Pandemonium breaks out as Police starts whipping everybody with guns, kicks and sticks asking us to jump into their vehicle as we were being arrested.
They want “Undule” and they take turns beating him, one after another whipping him with gun butts and
I see Oponyo falling down, I see Nancy Tembo being hit with a gun but, two Journalists and whipped side by side by one officer and I ask all Journalists to run for their lives as they will be killed.
I approach the officer in charge to protect us, he pushed me back, “I have been telling you since morning and this is what you wanted.” He pushed me back wards towards the officer with a huge stick and he whips be at the back, I try to run through a blocked vehicle a Police woman hits me with a gun butt at the back.
My photographer Amos Gumulira is trying to climb the war with Isaac Kambwiri, it is almost 1.5 metres high. A PMF officers comes and attacks him with a gun butt and late Kambwire, they bleed badly as they jump the fence.
They chase myself, Nankhonya and one Civil Society member and we make it into the MBC studios of MEMA where we hide at a dark corner. Police have beaten thoroughly Undule, Mayaya and others and are in their vehicle.
They start looking for us, I dial the Inspector General of Police Peter Mukhito’s number, who immediately calls his Regional Commissioner, who in turn calls the officers to stand down.
I get a call about Gumulira and Isaac bleeding, I try to get a vehicle from office. A human rights activist passes them as they run away into Mchesi he picks them to Kamuzu Central Hospital.
15.37: The Police violence has calmed down, we gather about 8 Journalists remaining, I advise everybody to go home or office where they will be safe. We walk in a group of five, but we are intercepted at MCHESI, where Police throw two tear gass canisters. One almost hit a 2 year old girl who had to be picked by a Journalist to safety.
On the count, almost all Journalists were whipped and beaten by Police, those with cameras were a major target as one officer was heard- take those cameras.
The fracas lasted 15 minutes and the chasing more time as they wanted to get everybody from the compound.
16.03 After hiding for a while, we hear the military has taken over patrols; we feel safe and start walking towards Kamuzu Central Hospital. A Daily Times vehicle picks us up. I advise those heading to Area 25 to start off on foot after we drop them at a safe area.
16.08. I reach my office and feel safe for the first time since the attack. I feel pain at the back and headaches.
I write file my days story in Pain, Gumulira and Isaac arrives. Gumulira has a 5cm cut necessitating stitches which go up to 7. The two are in more pain than I am.
16.57: We depart offices, wishing each other good luck and travel mercies, the pain at the back is unbearable and is causing more headaches, we try to joke, but nothing is funny. Reality sinks in that we could have been killed.
17.30: I reach my home, my neighbours have been worried as someone told them of my beatings. We try to go to hospital, there are no pain killers, and pharmacies are closed. We search for pain killers and we get them from a neighbour. The relief is obvious among the wellwishers.
Family, friends and colleagues call one after another. Been talking to Amnesty International and Committee for Protection of Journalists in London and New York respectively. International media is calling, everybody wants to know why the Journalists were attacked.
19.30. I go to bed, with splitting headaches, but the mind pain is very much alive. Images of people being tear gassed, shot and beaten. My mind starts asking if this is part of the legacy President Bingu wa Mutharika would like to leave.
08:00 I travel to the Office via hospital to get a scan, the staff at scan centre are no yet in after riots in their neighborhoods. I arrive at the office which is quite.
09:00 Reports trickle in that DPP Youth want to target Zodiak and protesters are coming into town again. I call friends at Zodiak who confirm they are outside their offices as a precaution.
9.30 We decide to close the office and operate from a safe house due to increasing gunfire sounds and Police spray tear gas near our offices at Chipiku stores where they are guarding.
I travel with Bright and Dumbani Mzale to new location of offices, find hundreds of Youth near the entrance into my township. They have heard the military is in City Centre and Old Town.
Teargass is flowing freely and gun shots are heard across town.
Officially Malawi protests have gone into a second day.
We plan to go back into the war zones. We start with City Centre where all offices are closed and there is huge military presence, we go into Kawale but we are forced to turn around near Machance after a crowd starts running away.
10.01 We pass through Kawale PTC which was burnt and Jacob Nankhonya has just lost his camera to Police who are shouting that he should have taken their permission. This is a strange crime Police use when confiscating cameras. He negotiates successfully for its release.
We meet four heavily armed PMF officers who claim we look drunk after our driver attempted a U-turn, we are allowed to pass.
10.14 We arrive at Zodiak station and the offices are diserted, with Emmanuel Chibwana we start off to Lumbadzi where the riots are intense. We are warned 1km away from the trading not to proceed. We Abandon the vehicle and walk to the riot zone. A body is lying on the streets and PTC and other shops are on fire.
Eye witnesses say the man was a builder who had gone to watch the riots.
Police stop us from taking photos.
11.30 We get a call from a Circulation officer that another man has just been shot in Chilinde. I trace the man he was with my childhood friend Suzgo Kwelepeta and they were talking of business when a Policeman shot him on the mouth. He died instantly.
12.00 We return through Area 25, where we meet a Red Cross vehicle carrying a semi conscious man allegedly shot by Police. Everyone tells us of stories of tear gas being thrown at peoples houses.
We get a report of a DPP official Damazio Shumba being beaten, I call him to confirm he answers, “This is what you planned. Don’t call me stupid fool.”
We try to make way into Area 49, the youth cheers us telling us “one more vehicle to torch” and we immediately return.
Another chilling call comes through, Kingsley Jassi my colleague from BNL has been beaten and arrested by Police for taking pictures. He was released after some pressure from people.
12.13 We gather at my place to listen to the President’s 13 minute speech. I reserve my comment only to say, Government does not have an idea on what to do next.
13.00 I review the days events, it hits me that Lilongwe has just registered its first two deaths during the demonstrations.
I file my story. The hospital advises me to seek scan at a private hospital if I want quick results. I decide that I will go on Friday.
I call it a day due to pain to rest.
Over 15 Journalists beaten, three arrested.
The Police, if you ask me, especially in LILONGWE caused the mayhem, they need to find better crowd control antics. If those people just sat down at Community as they were allowed in Blantyre, the story could have been different.
The Inspector General Peter Mukhito kept his lines open which were helpful to save many lives, but not everybody has his phone number to be saved. He needs to re-train those officers who lead teams into riot situations to respect the media who like them are on duty. To respect the right to life and more importantly remember that they are doing their appropriate job.
There are many people I would thank for saving us those days. I want to ask God to bless you as you keep up the work to maintain a free press and democracy.
This account is personal and omissions are mine alone. I will write the political angle when the pain has subdued.
Only God should reward everyone abundantly and comfort those that were killed or injured by our brutal Police services.