By John Mokwetsi
Ronald Dzumbunu’s face reflects a picture of concern and torment as the sputtering sound of a generator powering the water pump being used to flush water out of a mine shaft to rescue four trapped miners could be heard kilometres away.
Dzumbunu’s distress has been felt in the rural setting of Muzvezve, about 180km from the capital, Harare, where a mine shaft was flooded by water after torrential rains burst the makeshift soil walls.
Scores of artisanal miners were trapped and many died. Of the trapped, 24 bodies have been recovered while eight people were rescued in one of the biggest disasters to befall the country.
Dzumbunu, with a measured voice and as he gawps into the blank space as if deep in thought, said: “I know two people from the four who are still trapped underground.
“I sometimes feel like they are calling for help and urging us not to give up on them.
“Those are the people we grew up with. I am saying that they are still to be rescued, deliberately, because I believe God is with them and they will come out alive.”
But even as Dzumbunu is hopeful that the four might come out alive, he lapses at intervals and uses the past tense: “These were family men. They were breadwinners and it saddens us that this happened.”
This has been day five and relatives of the affected have kept vigil at the disused Cricket mine.
BATTLEFIELDS DISASTER: WHAT REALLY HAPPENED
Silent prayers, fighting tears and agonising occasional pump breakdowns defined the wait and the sombre mood.
For some, it was just a wait for the normalisation of mining activities.
“This is where the food comes from. This is my job and our livelihood,” said an artisanal miner called Mike who was smoking marijuana with a host of others who vowed that as soon as the rescue mission is called off, they want to go back underground in search of the stone that glitters — gold.
“We do not know any other way and while this is sad, this mine is what our lives are all about,” one of them said.
“We are waiting to continue digging.”
Mike added that as an artisanal miner, he had experienced horrible accidents underground, but the Battlefields disaster was the worst.
“We go underground, knowing that anything can happen to us at any given time, and that is alright with us,” he said.
“People die for various reasons and the major one being a collapse of the shaft.
“We experience that as we do our work but that is our employment that is what keeps my family alive.”
However, there is nothing that reflects that gold glitters in this rural community.
Workers using earth moving equipment were busy patching the gravel road that branches from the Harare – Bulawayo highway to the mines.
The stretch is about 7km to Silver Moon and Cricket mines.
Mining conglomerate RioZim holds the licence to mine, but, according to the company’s group corparate affairs executive Wilson Gwatiringa, they have no operations in the area.
“It is almost a misnomer to have these earth-movers here as if we finally have the gold to rescue us from the poverty that gnashes us.
“People died and this is just not a number to flaunt and a time for politically correct actions.
“We are saying these were breadwinners and we can do without the hypocrisy of government people ordering a road to be sorted.
“We deserve better,” said Takura Mutambo, who was among the gold panners waiting for the rescue mission by the Civil Protection Unit and other mining companies called in for technical support.
Mutambo added: “We are unemployed. We have never had support. You need to be politically connected to get an opportunity.
“For example these mines were a reward to the youths and without being part of the group you could not go underground. It is dangerous to be panning, but what options do we have?”
Many drop out of school to pursue what is regarded as easy money.
A vendor who referred to herself as Gogo Mutema said most children were dropping out of school to fend for their families.
“Schools are far away from where we live. Children here grew up working in farms around or the only other life they got exposed to is this way of life.
“The problem is that even when they get the money, the only way they celebrate is by drinking and having sex and this has been a cycle. The gold is both a curse and a blessing,” she said.
Besides deaths from working without the required safety protocols for mining given the illegality of gold panners, there is also a high number that have been murdered in the mining fields around the Zimbabwe.
In Kwekwe, which is about 40km from Muzvezve, residents of the city have been living with the reality of the machete wars among gangs that attack each other over gold.
This is a town that is supposed to show wealth and status owing to its strategic positioning above goldfields, but it has instead become a place of blood, conflict and pain.
“This is my fear,” Dzumbunu said.
“We prefer it here because we managed to talk to each other and protect what we have.
“This is a no machete zone. At some point in the past the Mashurugwi (colloquial for gold panners from Shurugwi notorious for using the machete to settle scores) came here with their machete behaviour and we stopped it.”
Last month Mbizo legislator, Settlement Chikwinya (MDC Alliance) vowed to confront head-on youths moving around attacking residents with machetes over politics and mineral resources in and around Kwekwe, but enjoying impunity because of their alleged links to Zanu PF.
Speaking to Southern Eye, Chikwinya vowed to end the lawlessness, saying: “Mbizo now deserves peace”.
He added then: “We can’t be counting bodies every month and injuries every day from people we are aware of.
“Mbizo has recorded a death rate of close to three people per month in the past six months due to machete violence.
“The machete-wielding youths are largely gold-panners who enjoy impunity provided by the Zanu PF leadership in Kwekwe and so this is what I want to fight against.”
In an interview with one victim last year, the man who had machete injuries and feared for his life told The Standard that being a gold panner was more dangerous than being in a war situation.
As the pump roared and relatives shed tears by each gallon of water that came out, Muzvezve constituency was in a reflective mood, wondering if an ounce of gold was worth the struggle.
“Do they shut down the mine? Do we stop? The human instinct is that we have to survive and we will do all we can for that plate of sadza because our lives depend on it. We are all ready to go underground and earn a living,” Dzumbunu said before digging into a plate of sadza and sour milk.