Opinion | From Zimbabwe to Sandholm and someday back again

On 6 September 2011, we were on our way to the security entrance of the infamous Centre Sandholm asylum camp outside of Copenhagen. Suddenly, the deafening sound of artillery filled our ears, shaking the ground beneath us. This was our grand welcome and a big contrast from the welcome I received upon my arrival on 14 June 2010 as Denmark’s first writer under the ICORN programme.

I am a political exile from Zimbabwe, hunted down by Mugabe’s henchmen for daring to write about the crisis there. The price for being daring is a life on the run. But fate gave me an unlikely destiny when the city of Aarhus invited me to live in its sanctuary.

Aarhus is where the infamous Mohammed cartoons originated, and the city decided to give me refuge to continue my civil-rights work against the Mugabe dictatorship. But there was a catch: this sanctuary and freedom would last for only two years. One might think that is a long time, but when you have lived under an 88-year-old dictator who seems to defy aging, time can often feel as brutal as the tyrant. Nevertheless, I was told: “You have freedom of speech in Denmark!”

Therefore, I began another bold campaign against the tyranny back home. I campaigned vigorously against Mugabe. I gave endless TV, radio and press interviews. I felt a huge obligation to speak on behalf of the millions of my countrymen who live in constant fear.

Little did I realise I was making myself an even bigger target for the Mugabe regime’s wrath. Even Mugabe’s spokesman had harsh words for me, saying I am a traitor being paid by the West to soil Mugabe’s image, and trying to rewrite the history of Zimbabwe.

In September 2011, I asked Aarhus what would happen when my temporary ‘alien’s passport’ expired. None of the city officials would tackle this question, which was deemed ‘political’. There I was, committing political suicide, protected by Danish officials who said I had freedom to express myself. Even the mayor wrote a speech telling Mugabe to go to hell, which he read during my official public welcome.

I soon realised that no city officials wanted to address the question of my fate because Denmark was being run by a fierce right-wing party at the time. That government disliked foreigners, particularly those from non-Western countries. At the helm of this toxic ship was the Dansk Folkeparti, led by an extremist who was bent on making it impossible to be a foreigner in Denmark.

I realised I had very few options, so I decided to start a fearsome process: on 24 August 2011, I applied for political asylum. I had heard stories about people who spent up to 15 years stuck in this process, and even reports of some who committed suicide from frustration. Aarhus offered no assistance. This was a ‘political’ road I had to walk alone.

I soon received a letter commanding me to appear at Sandholm on September 9 at 9:00am. A dear Danish friend from Copenhagen invited me to stay at his house and offered to drive me and my girlfriend to Sandholm for the appointment. We left quite early, without knowing what we might experience at Sandholm. In the middle of nowhere, we finally saw a yellow building surrounded by a military-style fence. I was dreading this moment, but now I had to take the complex journey of applying for asylum in Denmark.

As we approached the building, we were met by the sound of gunshots from a military camp across from Sandholm. I imagined the poor asylum seekers from war-torn countries being subjected to the sounds of heavy artillery. This was a traumatising and dehumanising experience, and I wondered how the government could claim to be a champion of democracy when it was traumatising asylum seekers in its own backyard?

We entered the asylum camp after surrendering our identity documents and made our way to the block where an armed security guard and a stern woman were waiting for me. They called out my name and asked me to follow them. My girlfriend was asked to remain behind and my friend could only sit outside while I was fingerprinted like a criminal inside one of the offices.

They also took some mug shots, and I wondered whether I had committed a crime by daring to apply for asylum. Then I had to watch a five-part DVD that explained my rights during the asylum process. But before I was finished watching, the stern woman whisked me away to another interview where I had to explain how I had reached Denmark.

I explained everything in great detail, and they said they were only interested in my route to Denmark and my reasons for seeking asylum. My friend was sitting next to me as a witness, but he was not allowed to say anything. I could see in his eyes that he felt helpless and unnerved by the practices of his government. My alien’s passport, which had been given to me upon my arrival, was taken away. I pleaded with them to return it, as it was the only identification I had since my original Zimbabwean passport was confiscated by Mugabe’s thugs in Africa. After making several phone calls to some authorities, the woman returned it with a stern condition.

“You can have your passport back as long as you don’t travel outside of Denmark. In fact, you can’t leave Denmark until your asylum case has been processed.” These were harsh words indeed. Now I was practically a prisoner in the very land that had offered me temporary refuge. I could not even visit neighbouring countries where I was scheduled to speak about my fight for democracy in Zimbabwe.

Fortunately, the people of Denmark elected a new government that promised better and more just treatment for asylum seekers and foreigners. In January 2012, I was summoned to attend a final interview at Sandholm, and this time, the officials seemed gentler and less cruel. They asked me about my life and why I feared returning to Zimbabwe. The interview lasted the whole day – which was emotionally and mentally exhausting – but I felt it was a fair and professional process. At the end, I was informed that I would learn my fate within three weeks.

Those were the longest three weeks of my life. Every day, I went outside and checked my letter box for something from the immigration authorities. Finally, on January 24, I received a letter offering me political asylum. I couldn’t believe it, and it took several days for reality to sink in. So now, I continue my fight against the injustice in Zimbabwe, knowing that I have true refuge here in Denmark. I look forward to going home to a free Zimbabwe someday, but today, I continue to fight for that freedom with my pen, paper and voice.

The author is a political refugee, and in 2010 became the first International Cities of Refuge Network author to be hosted by Denmark.