Peter Godwin had been declared an enemy of Zimbabwe, the land of his birth, for more than two decades by 2008. But that didn't prevent the 53-year-old New York-based journalist and author from slipping into the country to observe its elections of that year.
He had planned not only to write about the last days of Robert Mugabe for Vanity Fair magazine but, as he declares in his new and third memoir, The Fear, 'to dance on Robert Mugabe's political grave'.
There was to be no dancing. Instead, as the world waited for the 'rigged' election results, Godwin became one of few witnesses to a brutal campaign of terror by the president and his Zanu-PF elite to cow all opposition.
'This really was torture on an industrial scale,' says Godwin. 'It was very scripted, and it was very widespread.' So much so that as the campaign went on locals came to refer to it as chidudu, or 'the fear'. Mugabe's generals referred to it as 'Operation Mavhoterapapi? (Who Did You Vote For?)'. Even now, little is known of this terrifying period and Godwin's book has come as a revelation to many, largely he says, 'because all the foreign correspondents were kicked out, and a lot of the MDC [opposition Movement for Democratic Change] leadership was out of the country at the time'.
'They were under death threats and their lives were in danger so there weren't many people on the ground to report on it or amplify it,' says Godwin. 'It was only ever covered in bits and pieces, but you never really got a fully realised picture of the horror or the scale of it. And that's why I wrote the book because my feeling is that it should be headline news, and it's inexplicable it isn't.'
The realisation that a full-scale intimidation campaign had been launched by Mugabe in mid-2008 only dawned on Godwin two weeks after the elections, when, while waiting for results of the presidential contest to be 'massaged' and released, he drove with his sister, Georgina, to Chimanimani, the mountain village outside Harare where they grew up. 'On the way back we started to see the odd person in a wheelbarrow off to one side of the road, usually just before sunset. We made some sort of joke about the terrible state of public transport, that it had got to the stage you had to hail a wheelbarrow, and it was only when we got into Harare that we realised that they were the first tortured citizens being pushed back home by their relatives because they were horribly mutilated.'
In the ensuing days and weeks, Godwin visited many torture survivors who were hiding in crumbling hospitals, makeshift domestic safe-houses and churches. And it is their stories, their voices, along with those of countless other Zimbabweans he met across the country, that jump off the pages of The Fear. 'I felt kind of furious at it all and just so sad that I thought I had a duty to write a book,' says Godwin, who admits that it is 'a much darker book' than his prize-winning 1996 memoir Mukiwa, a coming-of-age tale entwined with the story of his country's civil war and the creation of the Republic of Zimbabwe, and his acclaimed 2006 best-selling memoir When a Crocodile Eats the Sun. This told of his discovery of his father's long-hidden Polish Jewish origins, along with his father's impoverishment, death and burial in a disintegrating Zimbabwe.
But The Fear was 'a far more difficult book to write', says Godwin, 'because you see there's been a kind of degradation of the place even since Crocodile, and because you are marinading in this very, very dark material. But I didn't want it to just be a relentless catalogue of torture.'
Not that he has shrunk from describing the horrors visited on Zimbabwe's citizens. But The Fear also reveals a level of dignity and bravery among Zimbabweans that, as Godwin puts it, 'blows your mind', and it is this, coupled with Godwin's trademark cogent, often lyrical prose, that renders the book as compelling as it is horrifying. 'These people were extraordinary and they don't get credit for it. You hear people saying of Zimbabweans, 'why don't they rise up and do something?' and I was at pains to show that they actually have done a lot. It's very difficult when you're up against a dictator who is prepared to be that brutal. It's very difficult when you've got an opposition movement that's committed to non-violence, and many of these people [torture survivors] are low- and medium-level officials in the MDC, who just decide on their own they've had enough, and they kind of get cracking. They've got almost no backup, just unquenchable spirit.'
He also wanted to give voice to the way in which divisions between black and white have now all but melted away. 'These people have been at the barricades for more than 10 years now, and what it has done is progressively melt any racial distinctions that are left, because everyone is in the same condition, trying to get rid of the dictatorship. To my mind Zimbabwe has, certainly within the opposition, become one of the most post-racial societies in Africa, and it's a very hopeful sign, because it puts more distance between the colonial experience. They've now got this big new experience they've all been through together in which skin colour is not what it's about.'
But he doesn't see much room for optimism about any peaceful power transition any time soon, 'because the police and army have shown again and again they will shoot and kill, and that's that. The government of national unity which the MDC was bullied into by South Africans is now busily disintegrating, Mugabe is saying he is going to have elections next year, and they're starting to intimidate people in preparation so, as the Americans say, it's deja vu all over again.'
For Godwin, who has been writing about his country's plight for years now, Zimbabwe's rapid disintegration is nothing short of a tragedy and in writing about it, he feels 'almost as though one doesn't have a choice'.
'I feel like it has this sort of resonance way beyond its own existence, that the whole of human life is there, and is so rich in what it shows, so extraordinary that it's very difficult to turn away from it.'