Living with the Angel of Death

After the execution of deathrow inmates Albert Ncube (23) and Isaac Mpofu (25) at Central Remand Prison on July 17th, 1964, the bodies were stuffed in sacks and delivered to their relatives for burial.

Obviously, this did not go down well with the relatives. Violent protests erupted.

As a result, the Ian Smith regime ruled that prisoners were now the property of the State, even after death.

Relatives were thus no longer entitled to collecting their beloved’s bodies after execution; disposal of the bodies was now entirely up to the government.

This declaration gave birth to the mass graves at Harare Central Prison, Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison and at Beatrice Cottages. This we are told by Roman Catholic priest Father Emmanuel Ribeiro in an interview with The Sunday Mail. Having been ordained priest in 1964 before being seconded to the Prison Services chaplaincy as part of the first group of black priests into the service four years later, Fr Ribeiro was one of the six prison chaplains at that time. Together with his colleagues, he had the unenviable task of ministering to death row inmates as well providing moral support and praying with them during their last moments.

“Our function as the chaplains was both spiritual and social. Both the prisoners and the prison staff needed upliftment.

“We would also source funding for detainees’ education as well as follow up on how their families were holding up. We would go around the country’s prisons to interact with prisoners. That is how l got to meet some of the country’s nationalists.”

Among the prominent people that Fr Ribeiro nurtured behind the walls were Robert Mugabe, Eddison Zvobgo, Edgar Tekere, Enos Nkala, Simon Mzenda and Edson Sithole.

Fr Ribeiro said while other detainees were kept in jail indefinitely without being taken to court, some were sentenced to death, with murder and sabotage being the most preferred charges.

During this period, there were different sections for convicted whites and coloureds in prisons.

As The Sunday Mail tried to get the man of cloth to talk about execution of deathrow inmates, it became clear that Fr Ribeiro was not inclined to dwell on this subject.

“The problem with journalists is that you just write for the sake of it and that is why we see so many distortions in these stories. I doubt very much that you really understand what people had to go through during that period,” he said.

The story came in drips.

When inmates were sentenced to death, Fr Ribeiro said, they could stay on deathrow for anything between six months and six years.

“They wouldn’t be told the day they would die, they would just live in suspense. The prison officers would then inform the inmate three days before the execution day. These three days were meant for final goodbyes with relatives. Those were usually very emotional.

“At this point, they would be removed from the others and taken to the execution chambers. One of the chaplains would then pay the inmate several visits to counsel and pray with them.

“No matter how many times you have to face someone who is facing death, it doesn’t get easier. This was a job that had to be done.

“On so many occasions, l have been asked how l felt facing these guys in the execution chambers, it’s actually an insult to my being. Of course you remain human.

“At that point, both the prisoner and the chaplain are facing an irreversible reality of death. There is no turning back and we cannot talk of acceptance there.”

As he delved further into these haunting memories, Fr Ribeiro said officials from the then Ministry of Justice where overall in charge of executions, which were carried out by the hangman’s noose.

“They would come and take over from the prison officers,” he said with emotions heavy in his voice as he drifted into these dark recesses.

A final walk to the execution gallows, careful positioning into the hangman’s noose; and a last prayer from the chaplain and the deed was done.

Conversation with deathrow inmate

Cde Xavier George Muchemwa (73), National Administrator for the Zimbabwe Ex-Political Prisoners, Detainees and Restrictees Association, escaped the hangman’s noose after a court appeal.

The death sentence was commuted to an effective 12 years in prison.

“In 1966 l was only 24-years-old when l was convicted for sabotaging a railway track in Banket. My mother collapsed in court on hearing that judgement.

“There were four of us in our group but since I was the oldest, I was identified as the ring leader and sentenced to death, together with my peer. The other two were under age and were spared the death sentence.”

For four months, he waited for death to knock on his door.

It’s easy to assume young Muchemwa was drowning in despair during that period. The assumption is way off the mark.

“I was only shaken when l was sentenced to death. But once the initial shock wore off and l met some of the comrades who were in a similar situation in prison, moral was very high as we awaited death.

“Unoziva chinonzi chivindi here, guts took over? We had all been politicised through teachings such that it was more of an honour to die for this country, rather than a punishment.

“We would sing revolutionary songs in those cells in preparation for death. Of course prison officers did not like this but when faced with death, you fear nothing.”

However, Cde Muchemwa said that whenever one of them was whisked away to the execution chambers, moral would slump and no one could eat that night.

“At one point, it got so bad that someone would be hanged every Wednesday. I think they were trying to contain overcrowding,” he said.

Then his appeal against hanging was upheld and he was removed from deathrow.

“Conditions in the other section were really bad. While we were well taken of as death row inmates, in the other section we were constantly tortured. We endured hard labour and couldn’t even bath, wairara netsvina yako iyoyo.”

The tiny cells held about 15 prisoners each.

Cde Muchemwa said some of the black prison officers sympathised with them, and also kept them posted on developments in the country.

“They could even deliver letters to our families and smuggle goods for us.”

Cde Muchemwa was transferred to Khami Prison where he served out his sentence before being released in 1974.

After a torrid 12 years of incarceration and a close shave with death, Cde Muchemwa, just like other nationalists, came out more determined to fight colonialism.

“Released nationalists like myself were at the forefront of recruiting youths to take up arms. We would mobilise the communities and negotiate with chiefs so that it would be easier to penetrate and navigate their areas. Chief Nyajina in my area was really a pleasure to work with,” concluded Cde Muchemwa.

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