Twenty-one years ago, the violent farm invasions were unleashed across Zimbabwe as the country’s increasingly unpopular president, Robert Mugabe, fought to retain control.
The consequences, which were catastrophic for the commercial farmers, their workers, domestic pets, livestock and wildlife, triggered an extraordinary animal rescue operation by one white woman and her small, dedicated black team.
The remarkable story of Meryl Harrison, the Chief Inspector of the underfunded Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ZNSPCA) and her helpers has been told by Zimbabwean author Cathy Buckle in her widely acclaimed book, Innocent Victims: Rescuing the Stranded Animals of Zimbabwe’s Farm Invasions.
Continued demand internationally for the book, which has been out of print for a number of years, has resulted in the release of a paperback version by British publisher Merlin Unwin.
A compelling and gripping read, the book demonstrates the bravery of Meryl and her team as they overcame extraordinarily dangerous situations to find and return traumatised animals to health and to their desperate owners, or to safe locations.
What made this rescue operation unique was that it was the first time that so many animals had been rescued in the midst of a very hostile and volatile situation. In Bosnia, for example, international welfare organisations only went in to help the animals after the hostilities were over.
Meryl says their success was due primarily to being totally impartial and never taking sides. If any animals belonging to Mugabe’s supporters needed help, they treated them as well, without charge.
Although Meryl has achieved worldwide renown, she stresses that she didn’t do it for any human praise – she did it for the animals, the innocent victims of human folly and shameful brutality.
In December 2002, Meryl flew from Zimbabwe to attend the BBC Animal Awards Ceremony in London and receive the Special Award for Outstanding Work in Animal Welfare, awarded jointly to her and her inspector, Addmore Chinembe, who saved her life on two extremely frightening occasions.
At the ceremony, Meryl moved the large audience to tears with her stories of the countless animals caught up in the first five years of the land invasions (2000-2005), as farmers and their families were evicted from their homes to make way for Mugabe’s ‘war veterans’.
Many farmers were forced to leave their farming operations at gun-point by trigger-happy, drunk or drugged youths and had no option but to leave their animals behind. It was Meryl’s mission on behalf of the ZNSPCA and the desperate families, to go into these destroyed farmsteads and persuade the invaders to allow her to rescue pets, wounded livestock and in some cases hand-reared wildlife.
Meryl, who is now 82 years old, lives in retirement in England, but continues to help and support animal welfare groups in Zimbabwe. She is deeply distressed by the escalating economic meltdown which is impacting on the welfare of all animals.
The chaotic farm invasions, take-overs and evictions continue on some of the few remaining white-owned or managed commercial farms, as well as on farms settled by invaders and beneficiaries who may have fallen out with the ruling Zanu PF party.
A recent scandal was the proposed eviction of more than 12 500 villagers in Chiredzi, Masvingo province to make way for a highly controversial agricultural initiative supported by the Mnangagwa regime.
Conservationists and many members of the public have told Meryl that a film should be made of their unique rescues, undertaken in such extraordinarily threatening and dangerous conditions.
Meryl agrees: “A full feature film would present an important message about the critical need to protect the environment, which is under ever-increasing threat across Africa, and the devastating consequences of land invasions, take-overs and other violent confrontations,” she explains.
“An international film team based in Hollywood has told me that my story would make a deeply moving film.”
Meryl is a fascinating character in her own right, with a most unusual background. This includes being adopted, together with her twin brother, Colin, by a very strict and undemonstrative couple after the children had been in an orphanage in London for a year. Then, at the age of five, they were sent by their new parents to a boarding school down the road where some of the staff members were abusive.
In 1948, after the war, the family moved to Salisbury in what was then Rhodesia. Despite living in a suburb, the twins were sent to boarding school and later moved to boarding school in South Africa.
“I suppose, as a result of receiving so little affection from my adoptive parents, I turned to animals because they were the exact opposite, always giving such unconditional love,” says Meryl.
Tragically, Colin was murdered by two of Mugabe’s security force members, a police officer and a Central Intelligence operative, when he was 46 years old. Throughout the farm rescues, Meryl struggled with health issues — cancer and a heart condition that required an operation for a pacemaker. —Merlin Unwin Book