The Raleigh News and Observer profiles a couple from Zimbabwe that was forced to escape their native country when the thug-o-crats decided to “spread the wealth around.”
Sitting at the kitchen table in the couple’s apartment in Ayden, Helen remembers vividly what happened next. Two Mazda pickups, bristling with armed police, were waiting for her. Their leader snatched the gate’s keys from the employee and turned to Helen.
“This is no longer your property. You have 24 hours to get out,” he told her. If you don’t, “we’ll kill you or put you in jail, whichever you prefer.”
It was not an idle threat. In 2000, war veterans killed a neighbor after he refused to leave his farm.
The Herbsts prided themselves on the relationships they formed with their black employees, many of whom worked with the family for years. The couple had provided a pre-school on the property for workers’ children, and a free health clinic where mothers could take their babies. Wally had hoped that his family’s longstanding ties to the area would spare his farm from seizure.
In the end, it did not matter. With the help of neighbors and friends and their vehicles, the Herbsts were forced to pack up as much as they could. Police pilfered from the trucks as the woman who would be moving into their home gave demands.
The Herbsts were barred from removing anything needed to run the farm, including tractors. The farm would be turned over to a local politician, and his wife wanted some things inside the home as well.
This irritated Helen, who picked up a pottery vase her daughter Pam had made in school.
“I said, ‘Do you want this?’ and she said ‘yes.’ I drew my hand back, and I turned around and smashed it on the floor.”
She laughs about it now, but Wally and Helen haven’t been back home since. Pam, who lives less than 70 miles from the farm, hasn’t returned, either. “To be honest, I don’t know if I’d want to go back,” she says on the phone from her home in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. “I’d rather have these pictures in my mind of how it looked when I left.”
The Herbsts’ son, John, returned soon after to tend to the cattle, only to be kidnapped and held for ransom at the farm.
The kidnappers had gained access to the Herbsts’ bank records. They demanded exactly what the family had on deposit. Helen doesn’t remember the precise figure, but it was millions of Zimbabwe dollars. It took Helen five trips with a suitcase to fill the back seat of her car with enough money to free their son.
Although she can retell almost the entire story without becoming emotional, Helen tears up when speaking of her three children, two of whom live in Zimbabwe. She is not sure when she will see them, or her grandchild, again, but Helen and Wally needed to leave.
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