YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN
James Morrow speaks to Zimbabwean actor and filmmaker Chloe Traicos about life in exile, her documentary about the brutality of the Mugabe regime, and the growing community of escapees from that African thugocracy who now call Australia home
In retrospect, perhaps the world should have known Robert Mugabe was going to be trouble. In the 1970s, when he was fighting the war for Rhodesian independence, he was thought of as the most radical, and most Marxist, of all the guerrilla leaders at the time, and did his best to drag out the war and its suffering – especially that of the white population – for his own aims. And his return from exile to lead what would become Zimbabwe was, according to historian Martin Meredith in his book The State of Africa was marked by throngs of supporters displaying “rocket grenades, land mines and guns … and many youths wore T-shirts displaying the Kalashnikov rifle, the election symbol that [Mugabe’s party] wanted but the British had disallowed.” But Mugabe, being a crafty warrior, moderated his tone on the advice of Mozambique’s president, who told him not to scare the white population back into exile.
Now, with Mugabe in the twilight of his life, his true colours have emerged once again as a brutal thug and an anti-white racist. And like another ZImbabwean author and the characters in his book, individuals like Chloe Traicos and her family have paid the price as well.
Tall, blonde and 26 – and with just a touch of the young Audrey Hepburn about her – Chloe Traicos is a Zimbabwean-born actress and filmmaker who has devoted the past five years of her life to documenting and exposing the brutality of Robert Mugabe. The daughter of former Zimbabwean test cricketer John Traicos, Chloe Traicos was born around the time of independence, and had what she describes as an idyllic childhood. The black-versus-white tensions that have been so enflamed didn’t exist at the time, and she recalls going to South Africa when she was a girl and being utterly baffled by apartheid – a system totally alien to the Zimbabwe of the 1980s.
“My father was a cricketer and also the managing director of a big hotel, and everyone there was like my family. That was my home, and I stay in touch with a lot of the people there, but the only way I can go back is if the government changes.” Traicos was forced leave with her family for Perth when it became clear that Mugabe was beginning to show his true colours.
“By the time we left, there were already violent food riots in the country”, recalls Traicos over coffee in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, where she moved two years ago. “I remember doing a three-day computer course in downtown Harare with my sister, and in the middle of one morning the college got a call telling them not to let anyone outside”, she recalls, making her an eye-witness to a situation it would take the rest of the world several more years to wake up to.
“The next thing I knew, our mum was there – she had coming racing in
to get us – there were riots going on around town, and we sped home and everything was shut down in the middle of a weekday and I just thought, ‘well, it can’t get any worse than this’.”
Of course, things were to get a lot worse, with the farm invasions that began in 2000 and the brutality that continues unchecked to this day. “When the farm invasions started happening, a lot of Australians just thought, ‘oh well, they’re finally kicking out the rich whites’, but they didn’t understand that all this was making life even worse for Zimbabwe’s blacks.”
To shed light on the situation in her homeland, Traicos – who studied acting in South Africa – has written and produced A Stranger in my Homeland. What started out as a stage play that ran in 2000 at Perth’s Blue Room has turned into a one-hour documentary of the same name that has screened all over the world, including at the Perth International Arts Festival, the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, and the Las Vegas International Film Festival – and has recently been picked up by Amnesty International as well. Essentially telling the story of both black and white Zimbabweans who have been forced to flee by Mugabe’s reign of terror, the documentary tells the story of “just how bad things are” – including the horrific Matabele massacres of the early 1980s, a “bath of blood” in the words of one witness carried out with the help of North Korean mercenaries.
It’s a constant battle to keep awareness of Mugabe’s crimes on the agenda in the West, says Traicos, who says she finds many who have escaped Zimbabwe just want to keep quiet, “keep their heads down”, and quietly start a new life. “The memories of what has happened is just too raw for many of them”.
But while the silence of Mugabe’s victims is understandable, Traicos is less sanguine about the attitude of Australians and other Westerners, many of whom still choose to turn a blind eye to the situation in Zimbabwe. “No one it seems really wants to know about what’s going on – he even has a following in the US!”, says Traicos, outraged. “Did you see that horrible speech he gave to the UN where people stood up and cheered?”, she says, referring to the address (boycotted by Australia) Mugabe gave recently – ironically enough for a man who has driven his country to starvation – to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.
“It’s like what happened in Rwanda”, says Traicos, speaking of Western countries’ failure to act in Africa before disaster strikes. “People will say, ‘oh, that’s terrible that that is going on’, but no one is willing to step in and really stop it. Sadly, the only country that’s really in a position to do anything is South Africa, but they won’t.”
Given some of the Mugabe-like rhetoric to come out of South African president Thabo Mbeki, perhaps that’s not surprising. For the people of southern Africa, though, it is very, very worrying.