The healing work of an empowerment NGO in strife-torn Zimbabwe is the subject of a gripping documentary titled The Axe and the Tree, which premiered in Johannesburg at the end of May 2011.
Directed by Zimbabwean Rumbi Katedza, produced by Johannesburg-based Curious Pictures, and supported by the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), the film focuses on the work of the Tree of Life, a local NGO that conducts community healing workshops in Zimbabwe.
The 42-minute film takes place in the suburbs around the country’s capital, Harare, and was shot during the second half of 2010. It features a group of survivors of the violence that swept the country during the elections of 2008, and four individuals in particular.
Despite the possibility of reprisals, the participants agreed to tell their stories on film, reliving the events of that time, and expressing their hopes for the future.
Onscreen, they spoke of their ordeals – husbands were forced to watch as their wives were raped; and wives endured long periods without their husbands, who had been taken away for interrogation and torture.
The Tree of Life is working with these individuals to help them overcome their anger and the desire for revenge, and allow them to move forward. Using trees as a tool, the workshop leader starts off by asking participants to choose a tree, and then, through contemplation, to liken their lives to its leafy experiences.
According to a Shona proverb, the axe will forget, but the tree that has been chopped will never forget.
Survivors at first find it hard to share their stories freely, but by drawing strength from the group, they identify similarities between themselves and their chosen tree, which may have suffered disease or drought, or even had its limbs removed, but still lives and grows.
“I saw that this tree had been hacked and that nails had been driven through it,” said one participant. “I felt that God had led me to this tree for a reason. If a tree can survive damage and still bear fruit to feed birds and people, there is nothing to stop me from also standing firm in times of tribulation.”
Many facilitators are survivors who have completed the course and have received training in the Tree of Life methodology. Remorseful perpetrators are also welcomed into the circle, and encouraged to participate in Tree of Life sessions to add momentum to the national healing.
Media freedom a matter of life and death
After the screening of the premiere, director Katedza, Zimbabwe-born activist Elinor Sisulu and Howard Varney of the ICTJ discussed the film with the audience, of whom a number were Zimbabwean exiles and activists.
“Zimbabwe is in a fragile state of transition,” said Varney, “compounded by the legacy of organised violence and torture. The situation presents a huge challenge for Zimbabwe, the Southern African community, and the African Union.”
He said that he was inspired by the film. “These people wanted to share their pain with the rest of Zimbabwe and the world.”
Varney also said that there was an urgent need for measures against organised violence, as only this would create the proper conditions for free and fair elections, as well as participatory constitution-making.
“This film shows ordinary people doing something extraordinary,” said Katedza. “It’s important that they tell their stories, because the media wasn’t allowed to capture the events of 2008. Many Zimbabweans didn’t even know what was happening to their compatriots. Now, their voices can at last be heard.”
She added that speaking out was an important part of moving forward, and that, while it described violent events, the documentary’s central theme was one of healing.
Sisulu said media freedom was often a matter of life and death, and that prominence in the media offered a sort of protection, as it was more likely that anonymous people would be victimised.
“We pay tribute to Zimbabweans who are risking their lives to expose this type of crime.”
With the ruling party insisting on elections in 2011 in Zimbabwe – although there are reports now that these may take place in 2012 - Sisulu said that the Southern African community had a responsibility to prevent the events of 2008 from happening again.
In mid-2008 Zimbabweans prepared to vote in the presidential and parliamentary election, with three candidates in the running – Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), independent Simba Makoni and incumbent Robert Mugabe.
The first round of presidential voting produced no outright winner, although Tsvangirai led Mugabe by 48% to 43% – a result that took one recount and over a month to materialise.
Because the MDC lead wasn’t enough to avoid a second round of voting, this was then scheduled, but Tsvangirai withdrew because of alleged violence against his party’s supporters. Voting went ahead anyway, giving Mugabe a clear road to victory.
The entire election process, especially the uncontested second round, was widely criticised.
Violence broke out around the country, with each side blaming the other, but even before the election took place, people became the victims of violence for no reason other than that they were not supporters of the ruling party. According to the ICTJ, over 15 000 human rights violations were carried out, just in this period.
Victims were kidnapped, tortured, beaten, raped, and their houses were burned – and for many people in other countries around the world, ongoing political violence and persecution is something that they too have to live with. The Axe and the Tree may be set in Zimbabwe, but the story it tells is a universal one.
The ICTJ and other organisations that work in situations of transitional justice help to address these occurrences through instruments such as truth commissions, prosecutions, and other programmes.