Zimbabwean doctors protesting the alleged abduction of a union leader were stopped by a line of baton-wielding police in the capital on Wednesday as fears grow about government repression.
The Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association has said its president, Peter Magombeyi, was abducted on Saturday after calling for a pay strike, and members say they will not return to work until he is found.
The southern African nation’s health care system has largely collapsed in recent years along with the economy. The government now says it is deploying military medics and doctors to help fill the gap at hospitals.
Several government critics in recent weeks have been abducted from their homes, tortured and warned by suspected state security agents to back off from anti-government actions.
Some in Zimbabwe have expressed concern that the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa is becoming more repressive than that of longtime leader Robert Mugabe, who died earlier this month. Mugabe was accused of using abductions to silence critics, and some have never been found.
Several dozen doctors chanted and sang on Wednesday as they tried to march to Parliament from the country’s biggest hospital, Parirenyatwa, in Harare. Police insisted that they seek approval for the demonstration first.
The health workers also have been holding candlelight vigils for Magombeyi. Their association represents hundreds of newly qualified doctors doing their residencies.
Health professionals at other government hospitals across Zimbabwe have gone on strike in solidarity, union leaders told The Associated Press.
But it carries risks. The secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Nurses Association, Nhema Edwick, said he had received anonymous death threats for bargaining for more pay for nurses.
“The government should stop targeting us as union leaders. All we are asking for is a living wage. I am also living in fear,” he told the cheering demonstrators.
Senior doctors said they have stopped working in solidarity with their juniors.
“It is much easier to produce one person (Magombeyi) than to convince us to return to work. No Peter, no work,” said Bothwell Mbuwayesango, a pediatric surgeon.
Zimbabweans left without health care expressed concern.
“We are the ones who are suffering, they should just release the doctor,” said Munei Ndlovu, sitting on the Parirenyatwa Hospital grounds. She said she had been told the hospital was attending to critical emergencies only.
Concerns are rising as Magombeyi has been held longer than those abducted in recent weeks. “We are now not even sure whether he is alive or dead. We are praying he is still alive,” said Harry Magombeyi, a family spokesman.
The U.S. Embassy on Monday said more than 50 civil society, labor and opposition leaders have been abducted in Zimbabwe since January, and called on the government “to take action and hold perpetrators of these human rights violations accountable.”
Most abductees, including during Mugabe’s time, were released after days or weeks of torture, at times following the intervention of the courts.
However, some people such as journalist and activist Itai Dzamara, who was abducted in 2015, are still missing.
State Security Minister Owen Ncube and Health Minister Obadiah Moyo on Tuesday said they had tasked security agents to locate Magombeyi. Other officials blamed a “third force” linked to Mugabe for the abductions, asserting that they are bid to tarnish the president’s image abroad and hurt efforts to have sanctions imposed by the West removed.
The country’s biggest representative organization for churches, the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, on Tuesday questioned the “third force” explanation, asking why only perceived government critics are being targeted.
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