Zimbabwe fire brigade on frontline after protests

BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe (AFP) – Zimbabwe’s widely respected fire brigade usually tackles house fires and traffic accidents, but it became a symbol of the regime during anti-government demonstrations that turned into violent looting and arson.

The crews were blocked from reaching blazes by protesters who erected barricades of burning tyres across roads, while crowds pelted their trucks with stones.

“It was vicious,” said Richard Peterson, the fire brigade chief of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city. “We were just trying to save lives.

“We had never been stoned before, and we felt overwhelmed. We had to get police escorts and that made our response times too slow – often an hour or two instead of 10 minutes.

“One shift stayed on duty for three straight days. It was unprecedented.”

Peterson said he understands how Zimbabwe’s economic crisis has bred deep frustration and anger, which boiled over after a sudden government announcement to more than double fuel prices.

“But we need to focus on engaging with the problems, not destroying each others’ property,” he said, two weeks after the protests in which supermarkets, shops and garages were targetted by looters nationwide.

Scores of premises were burnt out in Bulawayo alone, leaving blackened shells of buildings as well as torched cars on roadsides.

The protesters’ rage focussed on the ZANU-PF party that has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980, first under Robert Mugabe until 2017, and now under his former deputy President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

A female firefighter prepares for deployment at the main fire station in Famona district, in Zimbabwe’s second city Bulawayo. – AFP