Malawi 20/7: The day darkness descended

By Ananiya Alick Ponje

It is widely believed that human blood is seldom shed in vain. Its sacredness flows to the next generation and refuses to be buried in blurred images of the past. Christians ascribe the belief to the death of Jesus Christ whose blood is believed to have brought redemption for mankind. Others draw their beliefs from other inspirations; but they all believe that where human life has been taken because of fighting for a particular cause, things will never be the same.

July 20 has always been just an ordinary day in Malawi; it has always remained a day when Malawians would wake up every morning to undertake their respective assignments wherever they were. It obviously is someone’s birthday, but never a day that drew our attention to its fold until this year, 2011.

It is a day many of us now refuse to accept it really was. It is a day that drew the world’s attention to Malawi; a day that many wish only came about in a dream and passed away at the break of dawn. It will be etched on our hearts like screaming words curved on a marble.

Mutharika brothers, Bingu and Peter: July 20 will always haunt them

Those who witnessed the tragedies in broad daylight must be struggling to erase the bitter memories; memories of ghastly scenes where human blood flowed from human bodies like deserted running water taps. They must be searching for therapies that will draw their thoughts away from the sounds of gunshots that littered the atmospheres of Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu.

Photos uploaded on social sites like Facebook were sending terrible messages of suffering from Malawians. They were photos of men drowned in pools of their own blood, photos of heroes attempting to save lives of the most badly wounded, photos of riot police officers wielding their guns in warlike positions, and photos of journalists and civil society leaders nursing wounds inflicted on them by police officers.

For the first time since we attained our now fragile democracy, people were running to and fro in search of havens of peace. People were deserting their own homes – places where their very lives had hinged on only a few hours ago – to seek refuge in places which were never their second homes. Some who were not lucky enough were killed in cross-fires.

The scenarios in the three major cities namely Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu were typical of an empire on war. Gunshots are a rare occurrence in Malawi, but on July 20, they ceased to be. And the message that was being sent across from police officers was very clear: they were on a mission to kill.

You never use a live bullet and expect to just incapacitate; you use live bullets to kill. You do not descend on your unarmed opponent with a firearm; you do with rubber bullets which can heavily incapacitate without taking a life. But police officers thought otherwise. Their training of firearms use had to be put to evident practice on July 20. It was as if they had been eagerly waiting for the day their hands would be crammed with human blood, even though now they want us to believe they never used any live bullet.

The people who died in the fracas are the martyrs, those who killed them the villains. But the irony of life remains that those who fight that it becomes better never live to witness it. Stories will be told of 19 Malawians who lost their lives on July 20 in the process of fighting for democracy, but one thing remains that it will be the killers whose faces will be seen around town.

In all truth and fairness, the Civil Society had organised the demonstrations in a kind of professional way, until an injunction obtained by one concerned citizen Chiza Mbekeani seemed set to mar everything. People were trickling to all the cities of this country ready to march peacefully to relevant offices, but they were told that an injunction had been obtained stopping the march. That was where the trouble seemed to have begun.

People had been preparing for the peaceful march all along and they felt cheated by the eleventh hour injunction, thus their tempers began to fray. However, they managed to hold on to their patience until the police decided to fire teargas canisters at the marching crowds.

Director of Institute for Policy Interaction Rafiq Hajat holds Chiza Mbekeyani, the unregistered lawyer who applied for the injunction, opposition political parties who hijacked the demonstration, Chifundo Kachale, the judge who granted Mbekeani the injunction, and the police for setting up roadblocks in various locations to deter people from joining the march, thereby raising temperatures from the very start, and for their other “unprofessional” actions, responsible for the violence.

“… I am proud to report that Civil Society in Blantyre had no hand in the riots, looting and violence that ensued after our peaceful demonstration,” says Hajat in a note on Facebook titled Recollections From July 20th – A Postmortem.

It is often the nature of tragedy to strike hard those who can bear it least. We all know that even though our political leaders always tell us that Malawi is not a poor country, the fact is that Malawi is neither a rich country. And it is in such poverty as ours where tragedy chooses to enter. The damaged property should be worth millions of kwacha, and just another notable cancer in the already ailing economy.

Responsibility must outwit rights. Those who engaged in violent acts by destroying property of some people who even had nothing to do with the demonstration are no lesser than criminal thugs. But maybe as has been said before, if the police handled the demonstrators professionally, no one would have had an opportunity of engaging in any violent acts.

The world is crammed with opportunists: they only wait for an opportunity. There were robbers, thieves, thugs and the unemployed in the crowds. These are disgruntled and frustrated fellows who will take every opportunity to vent their frustration on anything. They might never be right, but frustrated citizens rarely consider the other side of their lives: that they too are moral beings who must adhere to the dictates of society.

Some were arrested, others wounded; but it is those that died that have spoken most. There is no joy in death no matter the circumstances. Whether one dies on a battle field or in cross-fire, death remains a tragic thing in our progresses. It is only kind hearts that pour out sympathy that will help heal the wounds cut in the hearts of those that have lost their loved ones.

Perhaps the death of people like Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin and Osama bin Laden, just to mention a few, brought some joy to those that had been affected by the inhuman acts of these villains, but they too had people who continue treasuring their lives. They too had relatives who mourned them as though they were the only people remaining on earth.

People started sending messages of condolence to the bereaved families the moment they knew their relations had died. And we expected President Mutharika to do the same when he addressed the nation a day after July 20. A rare opportunity to buy the confidence of Malawians was mismanaged when the president attacked the demonstrators, describing them as agents of the devil. That should not be what Malawians expected from him; at least a calm speech filled with reconciliatory remarks would have done it, not one where the president asked for dialogue while at the same time describing the demonstrators as working for the devil.

And those that have lost their loved ones must have jammed their fists in their eyes when they heard that the president had never sent condolence messages to the bereaved families in his first address after July 20. Their sorrow must have also been escalated by the president’s later remarks where he said the 20 July victims had died in vain.

Mutharika might have never believed what he saw or was told regarding the demonstrations. It must have been hard for him to come to terms with the fact that while he was delivering his lecture, thousands of those he leads were demonstrating everywhere across the country, not sparing Lilongwe, the same city where he was.

He must have been shocked to see DPP cars and offices up in flames, if at all he had the opportunity of seeing the pictures which continue circulating on the internet. It should have astounded him to the utmost to hear or watch on BBC, CNN, Aljazeera, SABC, VOA, France 24, Reuters and other international broadcasters that there was mayhem in Malawi, if at all he listens to or watches these stations.

The Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) thought the live coverage of the demonstrations was fuelling tension and havoc and subsequently banned live coverage of the events. But in this ‘Facebook’ generation, you can never stop information from being shared if more than two people have it. Malawians were communicating through different social sites and the information that got across was more than that which the radio stations would cover.

Some private-owned radio stations namely Capital FM, MIJ FM and Joy Radio Station were off air for about four hours on 21 July. People were speculating that it was Macra officials and the police who had ‘destabilised’ the waves because these stations were still broadcasting scraps of the demonstrations which continued in other parts of the country.

The only radio stations which were still on air kept being very economical with the truth regarding the number of people who had died in the riots. Some were reporting 4 deaths, others 9 even when it was everywhere that 13 had passed on. Ministry of Health officials had already confirmed that 13 Malawians had been martyred and later it was confirmed that the death toll had risen to 18. Now, we know 19 died.

If death only meant leaving the stage for a little while only to return again in the next act, we would be eagerly waiting to welcome back they that departed. We would devise perfect measures of embracing them into our homes, but death is a cruel master. It often gropes into human affairs and strikes where it pains most.

People showed the greatest extent of love and compassion by trying as much as they could to provide first aid to those that were badly injured. In the eyes of those ‘saviours’ was a kind of sacredness that informed others that human life can never be taken for granted. And in the tears of the bereaved, there should be a glow of pain sending a message of overwhelming grief and untold love.

Perhaps, every dark night they look at twinkling objects in the sky not as stars, but as shinning openings where the love of their lost ones pours through and shine down upon them to inform them that where they are, they are happy for having died for Malawi. But, such tenets are only embraced by extremists who take the extraordinary beyond the extraordinary.

Luck sometimes dawns upon those who rarely seek it. One man, a builder, was killed while working on a house at Chilinde Township in Lilongwe, another while guarding his business premises in Ndirande; some in cross-fire, while others in the stampede. Yet, most thugs who were looting shops were only arrested by the police.

What is the benefit of our carefulness? What does it tell us when a person dies while in search of a haven of peace? Perhaps it informs us that security does not necessarily exist among human beings. Maybe, like Helen Keller observes “security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

But, were they supposed to stand still while gunshots were being heard in their directions? Were they supposed to wait and reason with officers who were hungry for blood? Perhaps, all options would still lead to death. Maybe life had already been defeated and death was just waiting to manifest itself. After all, death is the final point of life towards where each one of us walks.

It is usually in tragic events like those of July 20 where memories of the past quickly flash in the minds of those that have retentive memories. Mutharika started his first term with bloodshed where a girl Epiphania Bonjesi in Chilobwe, Blantyre, was shot dead by a police officer during the mayhem where people were protesting that the elections had been rigged in favour of Mutharika.

Then lately the president described Peter Mukhitho as the best Inspector General of Police Malawi has ever had. He is the very same person who urged the police to shoot and kill all thugs and robbers.

And the best IG must have obviously transformed his boys to best police officers, and these officers had the audacity of using live bullets to kill Malawians. After all, some people in the riots were obviously robbers and the police had to execute the presidential directive of shooting to kill.

Now Civil Society leaders have vowed to take the police officers who pulled their triggers to kill demonstrators to the International Criminal Court. And perhaps like Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of evolution theorist Charles Darwin, once observed, “He who allows oppression shares the crime.” This is where Mutharika gets affected. In fact, everything else falls upon his head.

In his address on 21 July, he seemed to imply he does not know Malawians have problems. His declaration that he who has problems should meet him so that they should discuss may not mean anything now. Problems of fuel and forex shortage, the impasse in the University of Malawi, poor governance and many others are what Malawians have.

The president has been given opportunities before to discuss the problems with the Civil Society and opposition parties so that together they could try to find solutions to the problems that Malawi is facing, but he never gave them a chance. It was reported sometime in the past that he once lost his cool during the discussions and banged his fists on the table in total indignation. Did he have to wait for lives of Malawians to be nipped so that he should realize that Malawi is not sailing in calm waters?

Martin Luther King Junior once said that the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands in moments of challenge and controversy. The president must now be working out strategic measures that should ultimately declare his position regarding the suffering of his people. Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm, but it is when the tides begin to roar when the greatest among men must rise. This is time for Mutharika to embrace a leadership style that wears the harness of compromise.

Of course, we all know that in a position like Mutharika’s, before July 20, it was easy to roll in the illusion that the majority sides with you. But, in reality, such a feeling would only be there if one wasn’t curious enough to read the writing on the wall: are Malawians happy with fuel and forex shortage and the exorbitant taxes and many other burdens pinning down on their lives.

And Malawians have vowed not to be moved by the threat of death. They are patiently organizing for a nationwide demonstration slated for 17 August. Could this be the fall of the Mutharika empire? Will this put an end to the grip of the tyrant? Perhaps after 17 August or just a few moments later, the story that will be being told will be that of the fall of a dictator; the end of an oppressor.

At least 19 people lost their lives while fighting for ‘genuine’ democracy. They are martyrs who have departed from among us and are somewhere beyond our reach. In their death, they have fought a good fight for democracy. The pain might take time to be erased from the hearts of those they have left behind.
Such are the torments of martyrdom: the real agony is most keenly felt by those that are left behind; they that saw the blood, they whose minds are crammed with horrible images of death. But, for some time, our admiration will be directed on the dead; the heroes who shed their blood on July 20.

Even though we know that there are some living heroes who showed their resolve during the demonstrations, death will always force us to fix our attention on it. Men of religion always inform us that while we mourn the departed, others are rejoicing to meet them behind the veil. In such a way, they take away a good chunk of our grief. Perhaps, death, which may indeed be seen as the last sleep is just the final awakening.

But wherever the awakening will be, among the living, gaps are created. These are gaps which may be hard to fill, especially when they were never expected at such a time. That is why joy is never found in death, even if flowers glow on the tombs. They may only act as a catharsis that will take sorrow away for a few moments, but the pain will need time to subside in the hearts of the bereaved.

Nevertheless, deaths of people fighting for democracy give us the hope that their blood has not been shed in vain. Blood is a sacred fluid that has power that changes things even if it will not take a day for the change to manifest. But the point remains that change for which blood has been shed can never be shelved forever. History will refer to July 20 and August 17. These are the days!

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