MUTARE, ZIMBABWE — Christopher Holland believed he had done all he could to secure his home: two vicious dogs permanently stationed in the front yard and wall-to-wall security. But as he arrived home from work one day and turned off his alarm, two men in ski masks stormed in after him.
“They started shouting, ordering me to lie down on the floor,” Holland recalls of the evening in February 2017, when he found himself alone in his home with two violent intruders. “They tied my hands, punched me ruthlessly and demanded to know where everything valuable was.”
Holding a gun to his head, the intruders marched him around his home while taking his most valuable possessions. Holland, 67, says he begged for his life, but only when he asked for water, dehydrated by the ordeal, did the men leave his home.
In response to the attack, Holland added more security to his home, but two years later, it happened again — this time when his wife was with him. As the gate to his yard closed behind the couple, two masked men approached him from behind, and one held a gun to his head while the other grabbed his wife. Unlike the first incident, Holland fought back but was hit three times in the head. As he tackled one of the masked intruders, his attacker aimed the gun at him and pulled the trigger. “By some divine intervention he missed,” he says.
Holland is one of the more than 1,000 people who experience armed robberies annually in Zimbabwe, a number that has been rising steadily and is linked to an increase in the number of illegal firearms smuggled in from neighboring countries. Last year, President Emmerson Mnangagwa held a gun amnesty for the first time in two decades. More than 530 firearms were surrendered to the police during the nearly two-month-long amnesty, compared with the previous one, when no guns were surrendered.
While the amnesty was hailed as a success, the number of guns surrendered is small compared with the 264,315 unregistered guns believed to be in the landlocked country, according to the most recent figures published in 2017 by Small Arms Survey, an independent research project. Meanwhile, armed robberies continue to rise. According to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency, robberies increased from 2017 to 2019, with the number of armed robberies almost doubling from 2018 to 2019.
Inmates serving sentences for armed robbery admit the guns they used in their crimes were smuggled into Zimbabwe through its many porous border posts with South Africa and Mozambique. According to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, an independent civil society organization based in Switzerland, southern Africa is “awash with illegal firearms fueling violence.” The organization estimates about 3.8 million unregistered illegal firearms are in circulation among the three countries.
Michael Sithole and Stanley Tigere, both serving sentences for armed robbery at Mutare Farm Prison, say the guns they used were sourced from Mozambique. Sithole was an aspiring musician when he was recruited by a friend from Mozambique who gave him a gun and taught him how to use it. They both targeted homes in 2009 and 2010, until Sithole was caught and given a 26-year sentence.
Evidence Chenjerai, GPJ Zimbabwe
Tigere says he and his friends targeted businesses taking cash. “The guns we used, we got them from Mozambique, where we would take them from those patrolling along the Forbes Border post in Mutare,” he says, referring to stealing or forcefully taking guns from the soldiers who guard the border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
John Sithole, who is serving a 31-year sentence for several counts of robbery and possession of firearms, says the gun he used in armed robberies belonged to his partner, whom he wouldn’t name. “My partner had connections in South Africa and got the guns from there,” he says.
Anyone possessing a gun without a certificate could be jailed for up to five years in Zimbabwe, according to the country’s Firearms Act, established in 1957. Legal practitioner Miriam Tose Majome says there have been no recent changes to laws regarding gun ownership, possession and usage as illegal gun ownership continues to rise.
“In my view, it [gun ownership] has more to do with economics, rising poverty and unemployment levels,” she says. “Personal values have been eroded, there is growing weakening of traditional values and principles of hard work and delayed gratuity in preference for a get-rich-quick value system. If Zimbabwean law enforcement authorities do not put in enough measures to curb gun crime, it has the capacity to even exceed South Africa’s levels. Anything is possible.”
Ruth Mavhunga Maboyi, deputy minister at the Ministry of Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage, considers the most recent gun amnesty a success. “If we had not called for the amnesty, those guns surrendered would still be out there, but people decided to bring them in, which means now there are less unregistered guns out there,” Maboyi said in a phone interview.
Following the amnesty, Paul Nyathi, Zimbabwe Republic Police assistant commissioner, said in a press statement that officers would continue the fight against illegal arms coming into the country and are carrying out checks on properties where they suspect illegal firearms are kept. Nyathi says they are also focusing on reducing armed robberies. In a texted statement, he told Global Press Journal that police have a “coterie of measures to fight armed robberies” that include “campaigns, patrols and community policing initiatives such as neighborhood watch committees.” Nyathi added that police do not have any figures on illegally owned guns in the country.
Holland would like to see stricter gun laws in place given the change in gun culture; he remembers a time when people had guns for shooting small animals and thieves didn’t carry them. Now he and his wife are afraid to go out at night.
“Being robbed is traumatic, and I do not wish that experience on anyone,” he says.
Evidence Chenjerai is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Mutare, Zimbabwe.