Monday, July 15, 2024

Officers give foreigner (and Police Service) a black eye

Unless one was born in ancient Egypt or attended a modern-day medical school, it is near impossible to decipher most of the doctors’ hieroglyphics on Tinashe Bande’s medical card. Thankfully though, the January 9, 2012 entry is legible enough: “… been assaulted by police officers since May 2010.” The preposition-conjunction may be noticeably out of place but the message it helps convey is as clear enough: Bande, a 33-year old immigrant from Gweru, was beaten blue and black by the police on an ill-fated day five years ago ÔÇô May 14, 2010 by his account. To date, the evidence sticks out of his eye socket like a sore thumb – literally.

In his telling that beatdown was so severe that it left him with a tumescent growth in his left eye. He says that he still suffers continual headaches and that the growth resulted in his wife leaving him and being treated as something of a village freak.

Bande’s story is that following heavy rains in Maun, a man he identifies as Onalekitso “Pepe” Sikwa brought a TV set to his (Bande’s) house for safe-keeping as his own house had been damaged by the floods. Bande says that four days later, a contingent of policemen and armed soldiers called at his place in the dead of night and asked him about the TV set and its whereabouts. When he confirmed knowledge of it and that it was in his house, the police officers fell upon him, “handcuffing and beating me all over the body without even caring about the harm they were causing on my body.” Thereafter, he was taken to police offices at Boyei ward kgotla where he found a Special Constable he mentions by name. By various accounts, this Special Constable was fast solidifying a reputation as an effective interrogator, uncommonly proficient in the use of an assortment of instruments of torture – especially his very own bare knuckles. On the day in question, Bande alleges that this officer “ruthlessly pounded my left eye with a black baton while I was still handcuffed and I fell to the ground.”

In short order, another officer joined in. The officers had Bande sit down on the floor with his legs stretched out flat in front of him. The second officer then sat on Bande’s knees, exerting force on them in order to immobilise the legs whereupon the Special Constable began to repeatedly and self-indulgently strike Bande under his feet with the baton. In the lingo of certain policing districts, torturing a suspect in this way is colloquially referred to as “go pega s’kepe” – which translates as putting a suspect on a boat. To clarify the meaning, the feet of someone on a boat can’t touch the ground. When the beating ended at around four in the morning, Bande was bundled into a police van and taken to the Maun police station, still handcuffed. He asked to be taken to the hospital, prompting a hot-tempered argument between two officers at the station. From an office where he was held, Bande, who speaks reasonably fluent if accented Setswana, says he overheard a corridor argument between two officers ÔÇô one an inspector who had interrogated him earlier and another that he couldn’t see. The inspector is supposed to have said in Setswana, “Tsaya motho yo a ye sepatela” [take this person to the hospital] but the other officer balked, countering in response: “Selo se ke molato” – “This [the beating] is a criminal offence.”

The latter rightly assessed that there would be hell to pay if police were found to have assaulted a suspect in their custody. He prevailed because when Bande was released at around nine in the morning, he was driven, not to the hospital but back to his house by a CID officer who dropped him off at the gate. The officer didn’t help him into the house but drove off after instructing Bande to come to the police station when he had recovered. Having been forcibly put on a “long boat trip”, Bande was none too steady on his feet and had to crawl on his hands to get to and into the house. He couldn’t call anyone of his friends for help because, according to him, the battery of his cellphone had given out. When he switched the cellphone back on some hours later – and with no airtime credit left, he used the residual self-recharge power to send a call-back message to the cellphone of a compatriot-friend. The friend ministered to Bande until he recovered well enough to be able to walk to the police station to see the CID officer.

Bande says that when he sought to remonstrate with the officer about the medical neglect from the police, he was threatened with detention. Subsequent attempt to have audience with the station commander was rebuffed. He alleges that a female police officer at the reception desk with a prickly demeanour told him that the commander did not have time to attend to his case and ordered him out of the premises. Essentially this means that his grievances have not been officialised.

Two years later, Bande was finally taken to Letsholathebe Memorial Hospital upon the intervention of the local Immigration and Citizenship office. At once horrified and incensed by the abominable conduct of the police, a good-hearted female officer there is said to have insisted that Bande should be taken to the hospital. However, the fair-minded effort by the lady has not borne much fruit. The Maun hospital couldn’t do much to help Bande and decided to refer him to Sekgoma Memorial Hospital, some 700 kilometres away in Serowe. After nine days at Letsholathebe and with only P400 in his pocket, Bande finally left for Serowe where a doctor at the hospital told him that his condition was not bad and could be treated. First though, Bande had to undergo a computerised tomography (CT) scan for which, as a non-citizen, he had to pay P1500. He later learnt that the Maun police had not made arrangements to have him treated free of charge given the peculiar circumstances of his medical case. Having paid P50 consultation fee, he was left with P350 and could not afford to pay for the scan. Unable to raise the rest of the money, he returned to Maun where he later went to see an inspector stationed at the Maun kgotla about his plight.

“He told me to go back to Zimbabwe but that cannot happen because the immigration officer said I must not go anywhere until I am treated of my injury. To date nothing has been done; my health is still deteriorating as I experience serious headaches and cannot even work for myself. My wife divorced me because of this and my social status is being ruined,” says Bande, adding that the wife (who was in South Africa the last he heard) divorced him because she said that she could not stay married to a “cripple.”

His explanation about his social status being ruined is that he has become both an object of ridicule and some kind of monstrosity that puts the fear of God in some.

“Some people, especially children, run away when they encounter me in the street while others laugh at me,” he says.

He can also add financial ruination to the degradation of his social status. Prior to his injury, Bande kept body and soul together by doing low-income odd jobs around the village. Although construction companies and people continue to throw him pity jobs, he has had to scale back his workload due to continual headaches. The result is that, even in the best of times, he finds himself living in reduced circumstances.

As a matter of policy and practice, doctors at government health facilities fill out medical report forms when they have to treat assault victims. The form requires precise details about the nature of injuries. Bande says that the inspector he went to see at the Maun kgotla took this form away from him and never returned it despite numerous requests for him to do so.

A few months after his ordeal, Bande tried going back home but says he was turned back at the border by a Botswana immigration officer at the Ramokgwebana border post who told him that the face in the passport did not match his.

“That’s not you,” he remembers the officer telling him.

Three months ago, Bande was finally able to raise the CT scan money ÔÇô which had now risen to P2025 ÔÇô and the procedure was carried out at Nyangabgwe Referral Hospital in Francistown. The legible section of the entry in the CT scan report reads: “Left retrobulbar soft tissue mass … a calcification in situ measuring 3.2 x 3.46 cm causing proptosis.” The entry made two days later at Sekgoma reads: “Pt [patient] not citizen/needs private referral. Referred to maxillofacial surgery at Bokamoso Pr Hosp.” Bande says that he has called Bokamoso Private Hospital in Gaborone which told him that it would cost P13 000 (money he doesn’t have) to remove the orbit tumour in his eye.

He doesn’t appear to have fully acquainted himself with the way the official system works because there are some knobs he didn’t twiddle. Asked why he didn’t report the matter to the Zimbabwean Embassy in Gaborone, his response is that he only learnt recently that the embassy can lend assistance. He has called the embassy, he says, and been told to come to Gaborone.

“I am planning to go to Gaborone but I don’t have money at the moment,” he adds.

The other complication he will have to deal with is that he has no accommodation in the city.

Technically, Bande is an illegal immigrant because his passport expired on December 23, 2012 but his case has immunised him against the treatment that such category of foreigners are ordinarily subjected to: detention and deportation. He says that recently when Maun police carried out a raid in which they were looking for illegal immigrants, he went scot-free after recounting his plight, stressing the police’s culpability in it.

On the basis of allegations that have been made to Sunday Standard, in the recent past, 2010 appears to have been an unusually busy year for a certain group of Maun police who turned the tourist hot spot into the wild, wild northwest. An armed member of a local businesspeople’s vigilante group, who is said to have been overly generous to the police station and was in turn given a police two-way radio and unrestricted access to crime scenes, went after suspects with unbridled vigour. In one instance that we reported about two years ago, this vigilante (a Pakistan national who has since moved to Gaborone), took pot shots at the private car of an on-duty uniformed soldier running personal errands outside the barracks during an operation that he conducted alongside CID officers.

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