Mark Austin: 'Everyone feared being seen with a Western journalist'

Filming ‘undercover’suggests some sort of cloak-and-dagger operation involving false moustache, baseball cap and sunglasses. In truth it means going in as a tourist and hoping you don’t get caught.

We would have much preferred to have gone into Zimbabwe with official permission and a proper camera crew, but that is not something Robert Mugabe’s government seems able to accept. So if that is not possible, should we just give up on the story? Clearly the answer is no. We have to find other ways of covering what’s happening there. It is simply too important to ignore.

So, in we went, with small cameras and a certain apprehension. The story in Zimbabwe is certainly not difficult to find. You only have to be in the capital Harare for a matter of hours for the crisis in this desperate African country to become apparent. Long queues are everywhere. For bread, for cooking oil, for maize meal, for sugar, for transport, they have to wait in line, often forlornly. Using a hidden camera, this was really the easy part of filming in Zimbabwe, even as riot police stood by.

It was relatively easy too to film in the supermarkets. Row after row of empty shelves, meat counters without meat and fish counters without fish.

But to get to the real story, we had to visit the townships on the outskirts of Harare and Bulawayo, the country’s second largest city. In many of these areas, the water supply has been off for weeks, the electricity is off more than it is on, and the people are facing a daily and relentlessly difficult battle to survive. And to film in these townships is much more challenging and much more risky. Robert Mugabe’s spies and agents are everywhere, watching everything, and two western journalists are not exactly difficult to spot.

So here we had to rely on brave local people we could trust – people determined that the world sees the extent of the deepening crisis, even at some considerable risk to their own safety. Two such people took us into one area of Bulawayo, where the locals were collecting filthy water from newly dug shallow wells and where diarrhoea was rife and cholera was threatened.

We were told we had to film quickly and then move on.Ten minutes in each place and that was it. When we wanted to talk to a local teacher at his home, he insisted we came at night so we were not spotted entering or leaving the house.

As we filmed the interview, his friends kept watch outside. In fact, fear is what dominates life in Zimbabwe. He told us how everyone was scared to talk on camera, how everyone feared even being seen with a Western journalist. But he wanted to speak out, because he’d had enough.

He didn’t mind us showing his face and nor did some other people as long as the pictures were not aired internationally, on CNN for instance. Otherwise they wanted their faces and voices disguised, and who can blame them? We were about to leave Zimbabwe – they, of course, have to stay behind.

Because we were not there officially, it was virtually impossible to broadcast live from Zimbabwe in any satisfactory way. So we decided to do the next best thing. We put our satellite truck on the South African side of the Limpopo river, the natural border between the two countries, and for four successive nights we anchored the Evening News and the News at 10:30 from there. Unusual, yes, but also an effective way of telling a story that desperately needed to be told.

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