The Zimbabwean government has sent a formal protest letter to the United States embassy here, accusing ambassador Christopher Dell of trespassing in a restricted security area near President Robert Mugabe's residence. A broadcast on state radio late on Thursday said Dell was detained for half an hour on Monday before being released. It accused him of "trying to provoke an unwarranted diplomatic incident" by approaching a viewpoint guarded by armed troops at Hartmann Hill in Harare's national botanical gardens, 2km from the downtown residence.
This article struck me because I know the Harare Botanical Gardens like the back of my hand and I am sure this is a stupid excuse. The official tone of the protest probably serves to mask the acute embarrassment of the Zimbabwe government in the face of another blunder by a drunk soldier or something similar; don’t read too much in it.
The Gardens used to be very beautiful, lovingly cared for, with an impressive variety of flora; in the last years though, they have been neglected, pumps have been stolen and not replaced, rubbish accumulates, &c.
You could spend a lovely day there, strolling, feeding the ducks in the pond, studying plants and trees. In a couple of places, usually on top of a hill, you could see a military tent and some soldiers going about, cooking, or sleeping. If you knew Zimbabwe and its paranoid president, you would walk around them, perhaps smile or say hello, and be on your way. Even so, a couple of times, absorbed in my thoughts I got too close and was simply told to go away.
The radio report said the spot was a "restricted security area".
Sounds very efficient, doesn’t it? Not really:
It is not fenced off, but scrawled messages on rocks warn visitors "Save your life - do not come up here".
It is easy to understand how, if you are not familiar with the place, walking your dog could cost you your life.
The Botanical Gardens, as you can see from the map, border with Mugabe’s Presidential Palace and S. George’s College; if one really wanted to look into Mugabe’s windows, one could climb up to the pseudo-gothic turret of the College main building (were they used to shoot vampire movies with Vincent Price) and enjoy the green, lush sprawl of Harare’s northern suburbs from high up.
To those “politically correct” journalists that feel morally bound to refer to “the cruel Smith regime” before they come around to criticize Mugabe, I’d like to tell that when Ian Smith was Prime Minister of Rhodesia, the Residence had no fence or guard (even during the war), and around midday he would drive (himself) his Mini Morris to the nearby TM Supermarket to do his shopping. Even now, if you come across him in Harare, you will see that people smile at him and shake his hand and the women clap their hands and curtsey in the customary Shona greeting.
This respect and mutual trust has all but disappeared since Mugabe took power:
Good to know when you visit Harare is that some parts around the President's residence are off-limits from 6pm till 6am. You can be shot if you pass this street after hours, even when the boom is raised. When the President passes in his cavalcade, you are required by law to stop and pull over. You may also be shot if you fail to do this.
No wonder that Mugabe confuses a stroll in the park with "trying to provoke an unwarranted diplomatic incident".