Harare, Zimbabwe – Anti-riot police have assaulted hundreds of anti-government protesters thronging the Africa Unity Square in central Harare.
The demonstrators on Friday were protesting against economic hardships, deteriorating standards of living and corruption.
Wielding batons and rifles, police blocked a major city road leading to the headquarters of the main opposition, MDC Alliance, and the venue of the protests. Officers were also deployed between city blocks and demanded identification cards from passing pedestrians.
Hundreds of opposition protesters – who had gathered early in the morning in defiance of a police order late on Thursday night which banned the demonstrations – sang revolutionary songs denouncing Zimbabwe‘s President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
“#Zimbabwe yadzoka [Zim is back] #hatichatya [We are not afraid]. #Hatichade [We don’t want) #nhamo yanyanya [too much proverty],” read one banner.
Protesters also complained about a shortage of notes and coins for the country’s sole legal tender, the Zimdollar or Zollar. The shortage has led to severe price gouging for purchases made electronically, as well as for those seeking to barter goods bought electronically in exchange for notes.
“We can’t pay a premium for cash. It’s not 40 percent,” a protester shouted as he waved Zimdollar notes in front of reporters.
The police, who had been observing from a distance, formed a row and marched towards the singing protesters. Several of the demonstrators were injured as police swung their batons at will while dispersing the group.
Shortly after police started breaking up the crowd, an elderly woman lay unconscious, amid fears she was dead.
Red Cross workers performed first aid on the woman and whisked her away to a satellite clinic in the park. The unidentified woman had a deep gash on her head.
Other protesters who had been wounded were also receiving treatment at the makeshift clinic.
Godfrey Kamba, who is disabled and sustained injuries to his wrist, told Al Jazeera he had attended to protest against corruption and general hardship in the country. Vimbai Mutero, who said she wasn’t protesting but got caught up in the turmoil, sat dejected in the park and wept after Red Cross staff attended to her.
She said she was assaulted by police, receiving blows all over her body.
State security agents ordered journalists to stop filming the protesters. At least one journalist had their camera seized.
After dispersing the crowds, anti-riot police patrolled the rest of the city on foot and interrogated pedestrians, demanding identity cards.
But protesters regrouped about an hour later and sang loudly in the park after police left on foot patrols.
Zimbabweans had woken on Friday to find shops closed, and security checkpoints and roadblocks erected along major highways – where police ordered all passengers to disembark from buses and form queues.
Passengers were then ordered to produce national identity cards and open handbags and luggage as police searched for weapons.
Police yesterday said tonnes of granite stones and catapults had been smuggled into the city by unidentified people driving unmarked vehicles.
In a late-night broadcast on Thursday, national police spokesperson Paul Nyathi announced the protest ban.
“Intelligence and concrete evidence on the ground has revealed that indeed these so-called peaceful demonstrations will turn out to be violent,” he said.
Intimidation, arrests and a heavy police presence characterised the days before the protests.
Opposition figures including MDC Mufakose Youth chair Blessing Kanotunga and Citizens Manifesto activist Tatenda Mombeyarara were abducted on Tuesday night, brutally assaulted and left for dead.
On Thursday, MDC Youth Assembly National Vice Chairperson Cecelia Chimbiri was called in by the police’s CID Law and Order department, while Pride Mkono, another opposition figure, was also detained.
Police officers have maintained a heavy presence in Harare’s streets for the past week. On Thursday afternoon, many patrols moved around town urging residents not to join protests, with dozens of anti-riot police setting up camp at Africa Unity Square, the rendezvous point for opposition and anti-government protests.
“Do not take part, you will rot in jail,” shouted police officers using megaphones in downtown Harare and some residential areas on Thursday.
The United States Embassy in Zimbabwe issued a statement on Thursday expressing “deep concern over the abduction, assault, and torture of civil society and opposition leaders” ahead of the protests.
“The Government of Zimbabwe bears the responsibility to ensure the safety of its citizens under its constitution,” read the statement.