Day 27 – August 9, Court Day
(SAM) Paul woke up about 6am and prepared copies of names, addresses and phone #’s in case we needed them. Chris and I soon awoke. Paul and I gave Chris the copies of our passports. The plan was to leave Chris and all our gear at the camp. We would do all we could to smooth over the situation. In case we were presumed guilty (something told me this would be the case) we were not going to pay out of pocket. We could not go that even if we wanted to. We were going to try to convince the police and the other party that the discussion was now between the two insurance companies and that we should be allowed to go.
Chris was our ace in the hole; we called him the sleeper. If things got ugly, we did not want them to know about Chris. Anything could have happened. The traffic cop obviously wanted us to cough up some serious dough on the spot. This was not something we would do, nor would our insurance policy allow us to do this. When the cop realized we were not going to hand over thousands of dollars in cash, he gave us the option of forfeiting the jeep or Paul’s passport. This is the type of behavior we had experienced from the police and this was the type of behavior we had to be prepared for. We were not afraid for our lives but ending up in the clink until we started doleing out the cash seemed like a real possibility. We hoped to resolve the matter but just to be safe we were not going to tell them about Chris. If Chris did not hear from us by 11:00 he was going to call the U.S. Embassy.
We arrived at the police station at ten till eight. We were directed to a little room with stacks of papers, two old desks, and a wooden bench. We could see the prison from where we sat. About 8:20 a woman came in. She seemed to have no information about our case. We brought her up to speed and she filled out the paperwork. It was very hard to understand her English but we did discover that they still had Paul’s passport. It was the same old story. There was a problem and how were we going to pay for the car. Again, our explanations about how insurance works sat on the uninformed woman in the same way that the stale air in the little room sat on me.
After beating our heads against the wall in this little room for a while, we were directed to go to another crowded little room marked investigations. There was just enough room for three burdensom desks and a bench, but not much room for people. The investigations sign on the door had a skull and crossbones on it.
Atwell had arrived with his mom who owned the car. The mother wore a scowl and a lot of fat. She had a slight resemblance to the Gungin King in Star Wars Episode I. Paul and I were still in our yes sir, no sir, smiling, you must be an intelligent professional and all around nice person mode. We knew this was not the case but it would not hurt to try. Paul and I soon discovered that the “trial” of the guilty party was about to begin. The operative word here is homecooking. A Zimbabwean police officer asked Paul some questions and then talked to Atwell and his mom. The mom’s name was Agnes. She called the shots for her whole family. As she spoke the language and gestured toward us, her neck fat would jiggle just like the Gungin King’s.
(PAUL) I had a good sleep the night before my big court date. Pleasant dreams. I woke up an hour earlier because Sam’s alarm went off earlier than we had planned. After a shower, I put together on my legal pad (yes, I actually brought a legal pad to Africa – and it came in handy) all the important names and numbers in case we needed help right away. Most important was the U.S. embassy.
We had a bite to eat and then Sam and I set out for the police station. We said prayers on the way. Sam recounted the basics already. I thought it a bit funny that we were moved to an investigation which had a skull and crossbones symbol above the door. It didn’t exactly inspire confidence in a fair “trial.” We met our “investigator.” He seemed OK. He took us outside and asked me questions about the accident. That part of the trial lasted about 3-5 minutes. He then asked Artwell (away from us) his side of the story. Artwell had the benefit of: more time with the investigator, sharing the same language, his domineering mother, and two guys we suspected were “witnesses.” (probably friends or family.)
The officer asked Sam and me back into the room. He sat across from me and explained that he believed both myself and Artwell were at fault but I was “a little bit more at fault.” I asked him how fast Artwell was speeding; he said 70 km/h – which is over the speed limit. He asked if we were turning; I said, “no.” We weren’t speeding so he could not find fault there. The only other factor he used to shift the fault of the accident was that we were unfamiliar with the street and area. Therefore, he assumed we were not paying attention to the road and thus caused the accident.
Sam and I could read between the lines. The officer had his mind made up that I was at fault – there was no way he’d find in favor of an American tourist passing through their sleepy town against the local Bulawayo boy with the cell phone and the irate mother. This was a true kangaroo court. Justice, Bulawayo style. We have a phrase in America legal circles that applies perfectly: “We got home cooked.”
The officer presented 2 options, neither of which looked good. Plea not liable, don’t pay a fine, await your day in Zimbabwe court and not get my passport back – or I could sign an admission of guilt, pay a small fine of $6 US and get my passport back – or so I thought. There really was no choice, so I signed the Admission of Guilt. Sam and I did not have the entire amount for the fine (what were we thinking?) so the officer let us go to a bank to obtain the money. We drove to the city and I found a decent and trusting local man who gave us the correct Zim dollars for our US.
We drove back and paid the fine and signed the Admission form. Then we waited for some bureaucratic paperwork – that is, the police report form to be given to our insurance company. When that was finished, an older female police officer came in the office and explained that “we still have a problem.” What she meant was that she would not give me my passport until the payment and insurance issue was resolved in the eyes of the mother of the driver. In other words, the whim of Agnes controlled the police and, as a result, out ability to depart Zimbabwe.
Sam and I came up with a plan. Agnes would get quotes from a garage for repair work. We would all meet again at the station 3 hours later at 2:15pm. Then we would drive to Agnes’ insurance agent in town to work out the details. When I asked if I could have my passport before going to the insurance agent, the lady officer laughed. This was our best bet. Sam and I drove back and told Chris the news. Chris had had enough. He said that we would be leaving with my passport today at 2:15pm – not later or tomorrow. Chris was determined and I appreciated his resolute attitude.
Chris also called the US embassy in Harare and spoke with Theresa Hebron. She was efficient and helpful and said she’d call the police. Sam and I packed up camp. We left for the station at 1:30 and got there at 2:00pm. Agnes was not there. We talked with the lady officer. She was put off that the US embassy called while her supervisor was at lunch. The looming cloud of the US embassy hung in the Zimbabwe air. God Bless America!
The lady then talked with other officers and in a few minutes I had my passport back. She said that this was a civil matter now and the police did not want to get involved. Sam overheard them say that it was none of their (the US’s) business. It is the business of the US to look out for its citizens when they are abroad. Whatever Theresa said worked. We left at about 2:35 with direction to go meet Agnes.
AS we were leaving the station, several KM away, Agnes and her son saw our Jeep and blinked their lights. We stopped and talked on the side of the road. Things were going well with the exchange of information until we said we were not going back to the police station. We also told her that I got my passport back and that we could go to a copy center to copy all necessary document. Agnes blew up. We were accommodating and respectful. She ripped our rental documents out of my hand and walked away fast. Her son was embarrassed, but did nothing. I started to go after her but Sam said to forget it.
We decided to move on and go to a copy center since Agnes was not cooperating and was loosing her cool. It was unnerving because the situation was starting to get out of control. Sam started driving towards the city. Antwell started driving towards his mother who was walking towards 2 policemen. Trouble loomed ahead.
(SAM) I never saw the 2 police men and they never came after us. I wish they had. Only Atwell driving his mom drove up to us. The mom was talking on her cell phone and yelling at us. I told her to follow us to the copy center. This woman was totally irrational. It was such a strange situation we were in because once we got Paul’s passport back, we went specifically to find Atwell and the mom (who we now all call the Staypuff woman) in order to insure she had all the information she needed. We tried to communicate with her but, as Paul said, she grabbed our car papers and Lonely Planet book and ran out into the street. At that point, we figured we should just go because there was nothing else we could do. The police said we were free to go; we tried to give Staypuff what she needed so we started to drive. OK, Staypuff was now chasing after us.
At some point, Staypuff in one car and one of her cronies/family members both boxed us in. (drawing of two cars diagonally parked to impede our progress.) Chris said there was also a car boxing us in from behind. We were entirely peaceful and I think we were still in denial. We thought there must be some reason in these people but we were wrong. Welcome to the mob.
Staypuff and her cronies got out of their cars and started yelling at us. There were so many insane accusations being hurled at us. The scary part was that people we had not met before came up and started yelling at us almost as strongly as Staypuff. Later we discovered that most of these were her family members. We did our best to try and calm the people down. We were performing damage control. I would calm one person down and then move on to the next one. By the time I got the second person calmed down, the first one was yelling again.
We revisited the same old themes. Why didn’t we start paying out the thousands of US dollars or give Staypuff our jeep. I looked every bystander in the eye and asked each one in turn if they would call the police for us. We soon realized that the police were not coming. Then it started to get violent.
(PAUL) Staypuff was in a frenzy – literally. She punched at me in the arm and shoulder through our door, which Staypuff got open. She was huffing and puffing, snorting and yelling. The she started reaching inside the car for anything she could grab. She was looking for my passport. She did grab our Lonely Planet book. I was outraged and yelled back at her. She also was reaching into my pockets for my passport. I asked Chris what to do and he said, “Get the door closed.” When Staypuff moved away slightly, I was able to slam the door shut and lock it.
I tried to reason with the angry mob through an open window. They were not in the discussing mood. Staypuff then reached at my hair and grabbed a big clump. Now things were getting serious. She was on a rampage: irrational, seething, and like a madman.
(SAM) The animal then came to my side of the jeep. I had the keys in my fist under my leg. Staypuff was yelling and looking in the jeep for anything she could grab. She tried to open the door but this was the broken door that would not.
(CHRIS) She then hit Sam several times in the arm and side and then once in the face. I guess it was more shocking to Sam than painful. It did sting a bit, tho. Sam stayed calm and did not fight back or even roll up his window. He merely kept repeating all the information: 1) We want to resolve this. 2) We don’t have the money to pay you. 3) We would like the police to arbitrate. 4) We have all the proper insurance. 5) We will give you neither money, the car, or passports.
The 3 of us staying calm was important, but still no police arrived. I thought I saw one policeman in the growing mob, but he disappeared soon enough. We asked passers-by to call police and they all walked away or merely stood there. Finally, the 1st white guys came by , slowing down as they drove. They agreed to call the police. Another 10 minutes or so passed. All that was happening was yelling and arguing in circles. They had proposed having one of us ride with them and one of them with us to the police station.
Paul seemed like he thought this was a solution and considered it. Sam and I told him we would not get out of the car for safety reasons and felt it was probably not a good idea for him to. But with no other solution in sight, he finally did with the stipulation that it NOT be Staypuft who rides with us. So Paul got into Darlington’s towtruck. (He was Atwell’s brother, Staypuft’s other son.) Webster got into our car. We found out he was Puft’s sister, I mean brother. He sat in the car with Sam and I and he smoked and got thirsty, asking us for a beer.
Darlington and Puft led us to a DIFFERENT police station. We parked there. Paul went inside with Puft. The police seemed annoyed by Puft and they took Paul aside separately. It took nearly an hour, but the police eventually said we were free to go. However, they did not help this become a reality. Basically, Puft and a dozen of her cell-phone beckoned friends had us trapped. Paul next went to the Automobile Association with Darlington. Meanwhile, Webster needed a beer, so he had a friend sit with us. They didn’t seem to care for corrupt Marxist President Mugabe.
Puft’s insurance man showed up. He was a clueless idiot. After an hour or so, he agreed to use his cell to call Lynda. Lynda took her sweet time faxing Paul at AA but our AA rep was cool and straightened crap out. Finally, we had enough info and Puft’s cronies let us go -? 4 HOURS LATER!
We drove as fast as we could to the border. It closed at 10pm and it was already 6:15. We thought we would not make it, but gave it a shot, not stopping except for petrol. We got there at 9:53, weak, tired, hungry, and mad. BUT REALLY ELATED to leave Stupid Zimbabwe behind. Getting out was easy, luckily.
The S.A. border at BeitBridge was a pain, tho. We mashed ourselves into the crowd at the counter and were eventually processed. We drove to Tshipse and camped. The man at the gate showed us some real human decency and compassion at 11:30pm. He let us in even though we could not leave a deposit in Rand. We had none. His name was Freddy. We put up the tent and lay down, smiling so big it hurt. We were just so content, no matter how tired we were.