Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A human rights hero's life-altering move

Peaceful Christmas in Winnipeg after chilling death-sentence escape

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An exiled labour leader who fought for the rights of more than a million farm workers in chaotic Zimbabwe has been living quietly in Winnipeg for almost a year.

Now that she has her three youngest children safely out of the country and with her, Gertrude Hambira can talk about it.

A death warrant was issued for her after she produced a documentary exposing the violence and torture involved in President Robert Mugabe's land reforms.

She picked up her son George, then 5, from school one day and fled Zimbabwe for her life the next.

"I was driving from work with little George when I learned the office is under siege," she said.

Hambira, the first woman to run the General Agriculture and Plantation Workers' Union of Zimbabwe, produced the documentary House of Justice with evidence of the beatings and torture of farm workers and owners by government thugs. She invited government officials and community leaders to see it. They didn't see it as constructive criticism but treason, she said.

"You tarnished the image of the country. You need to die," one high-ranking government official told her, she recalled. He was ready to make good on that threat a day later when Hambira avoided an ambush at the union office and got away, she said.

"Luckily I had my passport in my handbag."

Someone picked up little George and she went into hiding, going to a safe house before getting out of the country overland through Zambia to South Africa.

She and her husband, George, an electrician, got refugee status in Canada, where her oldest daughter was completing a masters degree at the University of Manitoba. The three youngest children, including George, who's now 7, Kuda, 15, and Shamiso, 18, were taken care of by family and friends. The Rotary Club of Charleswood rallied behind the family to bring the kids here last month. The family lives in Charleswood and the kids are thriving in school.

It's almost surreal for Hambira, sitting next to the Christmas tree in their quiet living room.

After challenging white land owners and winning better pay and working conditions for farm workers, Hambira faced an even bigger battle with the Mugabe government.

"I went from the frying pan to the fire."

The government ordered land reforms that kicked out the white owners and the black workers. The farms went out of production. The land was given to government ministers and supporters and the economy of Zimbabwe, once the biggest food producer in Africa, collapsed. When the Southern African Development Community -- a kind of supreme court for the region -- ruled the land reforms were unjust and overturned them, the Mugabe regime ignored it. Farmers and workers returning to the land were beaten and run off the property.

Hambira thinks she'll never be able to return to Zimbabwe and wants the world to know what is happening there. More than 1.4 million agricultural workers lost their homes and livelihoods, said Hambira, who's been invited to speak around the world.

She hopes the Canadian Museum for Human Rights can one day help to educate people, and she wants to be part of it.

"I've never stopped advocating on behalf of workers in my country."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Who is Gertrude Hambira?

The 50-year-old began work as a factory machinist at 19, a year after Zimbabwe's 1980 independence from Britain.

In 1987, she became a trade union educator with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.

In 2000, elected the first woman secretary general of the General Agriculture and Plantation Workers' Union of Zimbabwe.

She belonged to the Coalition Against Child Labour in Zimbabwe to prevent the exploitation of children as workers and another group trying to educate people about HIV/AIDS.

In 2009, she produced the documentary House of Justice and was exiled from Zimbabwe. See http://vimeo.com/24309617.

In 2010, she moved to Winnipeg and still advocates for human rights.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 22, 2011 A8

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