Four years on, was Zimbabwe protest worth it?

Published: Tuesday, February 13, 2007, 23:53 [IST]
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Paris:Henry Olonga began his international cricket career as a raw 18-year-old fast bowler, the youngest and the first black man to represent Zimbabwe.

It ended less than eight years later with him fleeing for his life, exiled from his home and condemned as a traitor.

Four years on from Olonga and teammate Andy Flower's widely-praised World Cup decision to risk all they'd worked for by donning black armbands to make their now famous "death of democracy" denunciation of Robert Mugabe, was it all worth it?

The plight of Zimbabwe in general, and the country's struggling cricket team in particular, will come into sharp focus once again in the Caribbean in four weeks' time when the 2007 World Cup gets underway.

The Zimbabwe team which competed in the 2003 event has endured trauma on and off the field in the years since.

They have been stripped of Test status, torn apart by strikes, boycotts and pay disputes, been routinely whipped into defeat and such has been the violence of the implosion that not one player from the 2003 team has survived to reach the Caribbean.

Despite the dramas, Olonga, has no regrets.

"Andy Flower approached me a few months before the start of the World Cup and touted the idea of a protest," recalled the 30-year-old Olonga.

"There was a thought of boycotting the World Cup but that was too drastic because we didn't want to derail the campaign. It meant so much to so many people.

"So to wear black armbands was the most dignified way."

The backlash from the Mugabe regime was immediate.

"It became very uncomfortable to stay in the country," added Olonga.

"There had been many political opponents who had been imprisoned or had become victims of violence if they didn't toe the line. It was suggested that something very unpleasant would happen to me if I stayed," he told the BBC recently.

Olonga was able to make his escape to England once his team's involvement in the 2003 World Cup came to an end with a tame defeat to Kenya in the South African city of Bloemfontein.

Reports suggested that Zimbabwe secret agents had arrived at the ground with the intention of snatching Olonga and spiriting him back across the border to face the wrath of Mugabe.

Olonga now lives peacefully in England, establishing a music career but still active in the game featuring in charity and club games.

Flower also played the last of his 213 One-day internationals at the World Cup and like Olonga it was in South Africa in a defeat in East London to Sri Lanka before he too made his escape to England.

Since then, the 38-year-old has kept playing for Essex and South Australia.

Four years on, Flower is still depressed over what's happened to his country.

"The stance that Henry Olonga and I took was against human rights abuses and the lack of democracy, to highlight that Zimbabwe was turning into a police state," said Flower.

"People were being raped, beaten and tortured. I don't like being called a rebel. Our protest had an impact when we did it, but in the practical sense, I don't think it has done anything."

In the West Indies, Zimbabwe's challenge is likely to be put down quickly and ruthlessly, having been drawn in a first round group with former champions West Indies and Pakistan.

"I don't see a long-term future for Zimbabwe," says Flower.

"The domestic structure isn't strong enough to bring through the quality of players to do well on the international stage."

Olonga believes all is not lost, but that there are still plenty of dark days ahead.

"There's no inheritance for young people there, many have left, many have had their youth stolen from them," he says.

"Mugabe was a great showman. Many people thought he supported reconciliation but he showed his true colours with the land invasions.

"But I have a lot of hope for the country. Zimbabwe has great people - just bad leadership."


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