Interviews December 2003

Life in Mugabe-ville

Samantha Power, the author of "How to Kill a Country," describes Zimbabwe's descent into chaos
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Spend just one hour with human-rights activist, scholar, and writer Samantha Power, and you're bound to come away either exhausted or exhilarated. Power doesn't just move through the moments of her life—she spins, attending to a whirlwind of events with the energy of a kid at recess and the deliberation of a seasoned diplomat. During a recent visit to her office at the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard, I watched Power juggle a multitude of matters in our sixty-minute interview. Among these were a phone call from the campaign of presidential hopeful Wesley Clark, the requests of eager students who'd lined up in the hall for a slice of her coveted office hours, and preparations for an afternoon trip to New York for her mother's birthday. Throughout our conversation, Power's assistant knocked on the door several times, always with an "urgent" request. Power handled these interruptions with complete calm, in each instance returning to our conversation with unflagging vigor. On the subject of human rights, Power talks with a rare breed of passion that is impossible to miss. And her work ethic is equally impressive. It's been said that during blustery Boston winters, she often keeps the temperature in her office at 80 degrees. That way, when the heat turns off in the evening she'll still have enough warmth built up to work until the wee hours of the morning.

Combining that passion and work ethic with a deft analytical mind, Power has chosen to focus her thinking primarily on war and genocide. "I find myself most drawn to places where the stakes seem really high in terms of human life," she says, "toward places where there are the largest numbers of preventable deaths." In 2002, Power's book, A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, explored America's tragic inaction in several instances of preventable death, and won her a Pulitzer Prize. The book in part grew out of Power's September 2001 Atlantic article, "Bystanders to Genocide: Why the United States Let the Rwanda Tragedy Happen," which won a National Magazine Award for public interest.

In "How to Kill a Country" (December Atlantic), Power returns to Africa. This time, she has written about the latest tragedy on there: Zimbabwe. Independent from Britain since 1980, Zimbabwe is a fertile land that has long been considered the "breadbasket" of Africa. Yet in just the past five years, Zimbabwe's liberation leader, president Robert Mugabe, has managed to bring his country to chaos. Power spent a month in Zimbabwe last summer and then wrote a chilling analysis of the "all-systems assault" that Mugabe has launched against his own people. Power observes that Mugabe has compiled a veritable "how-to manual on national destruction" and has demonstrated "how much damage one man can do, very quickly."

Power argues that destroying a country Mugabe-style involves the following ten "steps":

  1. Destroy the engine of productivity
  2. Bury the truth
  3. Crush dissent
  4. Legislate the impossible
  5. Teach hate
  6. Scare off foreigners
  7. Invade a neighbor
  8. Ignore a deadly enemy
  9. Commit genocide
  10. Blame the imperialists

At the center of the destructive campaign is Mugabe's redistribution of farmland from white farmers to blacks. "Redistribution" in this case means outright stealing, which has turned thousands of fertile acres into fallow land under the mismanaging hands of Mugabe's cronies, who have received the farms as gifts for loyalty. It is a move that has devastated Zimbabwe's productivity, pushing much of the country to the brink of starvation. Land reform has been an issue ever since the civil war that led to Zimbabwe's independence in 1980, but almost no one agrees that Mugabe's solution is doing anything but wrecking the country's valuable resources. Last March, Zimbabweans voted Mugabe out of office, only to see him rig the results and jail the winner (Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the "Movement for Democratic Change") on charges of treason. Held completely unaccountable for his actions by local, regional, and international forces, Mugabe has made victims of the very people whose independence he fought to win just twenty years ago. "Every day I was in Zimbabwe," Power says, "I would ask myself, 'how is society going to be here tomorrow when I wake up?' Things have got to change."

I spoke with her on November 3 and 12.

—Steve Grove

[Note: "How to Kill a Country" is not yet available online, but is available on the newsstand in the December issue.]


There are many places in the world where you could go to explore the violation of human rights. Why did you choose Zimbabwe?

The alarm bells are ringing in Zimbabwe right now in a way that they aren't ringing in many other countries in the world. And in the other countries where they are ringing, we already seem to be involved: Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea. Zimbabwe, it seemed to me, was very likely to get left off the foreign-policy agenda. So it seemed like a good time, with a crisis unfolding, to draw our attention to this tragedy.

But there was another reason I was interested in Zimbabwe. One of the most provocative and intriguing claims in human rights in the last decade is the claim of Nobel Prize-winner Amartya Sen that no country with a free press has ever had a famine: essentially that civil and political rights are what enable social and economic welfare. For a leader to have economic policies that cause mass poverty for his people, and to have 30 percent of the population infected by HIV—and for the local press not to be able to put pressure on him to alleviate these problems—that's a very dire situation. So it seemed like it would be useful—not just for Zimbabwe but for other countries—to try to understand the interplay between these forces.

Foreign journalists have been banned from Zimbabwe since February. How did you get into the country, and how did you manage once inside?

You know, we journalists sometimes mythologize the dangers of our movements, creating images of "deep throat" meetings in a variety of settings. When I went to Zimbabwe I was definitely afraid, because of all I heard. I had all my contacts buried in very discreet places in my baggage. I expected to get searched, and I expected my itinerary to come under scrutiny. But when I walked in it was like, "hey, mon." Literally, there was a sign that said "Tourists," and so I went through that. It's a lot harder if you're a photographer, especially if you're a video photographer. But print journalists can easily get in.

In terms of getting around, initially I was very careful. I was worried about being followed, so I stayed out of the city and out of the main hotels and took a variety of precautions. But it got to the point where I started to be a little bolder. I wanted to see the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Morgan Tsvangirai (pronounced chang-er-rai), so even though I knew that his house would be watched, going there was a risk worth taking. There were enough foreigners and enough Caucasians in the country that I could have been an NGO worker, a lawyer, a local white—there were a lot of things I could have been. But what never got easy was actually getting people to trust that they would be secure in talking to me. I could get people to talk to me at length about their frustration and suffering, but when it came to taking names and so on, there was still a real fear that there would be accountability issues.

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