On a sunny morning in early February, two cricketers, smartly dressed in the Zimbabwe team colours of red, green and black, strolled on to the lush green pitch of Harare's main cricket ground. Along with the rest of the Zimbabwe team, they were there to play against Namibia in their country's opening match of the cricket World Cup. They may have hoped for an enthusiastic welcome from the rather thin crowd in the stands, but the fans stayed unusually quiet. The reason? Henry Olonga and his team-mate Andy Flower had made an unscheduled addition to their kit: they were wearing black armbands. And in a joint pre-match statement, the two players - one black, one white - explained their actions thus: "We are mourning the death of democracy in our beloved Zimbabwe... We pray that our small action may help to restore sanity and dignity to our nation."
A small action, indeed; certainly, if judged by the standards of even the most elementary democracy. Yet it has cost the two men dearly. Their comparatively opulent lifestyles in the beleaguered southern-African nation are no more. The two cricketers have joined the estimated three million of their countrymen who have fled Robert Mugabe's reign of terror to live as economic and political refugees in foreign countries. Both have retired from the international game; Olonga is in hiding in South Africa, and Flower and his family are preparing to start a new life in England. (Flower will be joining the Essex team this summer.) Both know what awaits them if they go back home - charges of treason, an offence punishable by death.
Zimbabwe House, President Mugabe's official residence in Harare, is just opposite the capital city's cricket ground. Stroll around these two buildings and you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a country at war with a superpower. They are surrounded by heavily fortified security cordons and armed soldiers carrying automatic rifles and machine guns. Hi-tech security cameras, allegedly installed with the help of Israeli intelligence, are dotted around the towering concrete wall around Mugabe's hideaway. But they are not just there to enable his security men to track movements in the immediate vicinity. Just as important, they allow them to monitor everything that goes on at the cricket ground, on the western side of the President's residence.
The reason for their interest is obvious. The ground is the long- standing home of the Harare Sports Club, a popular venue for whites that has often been accused of providing a focus for plots to overthrow Mugabe's government. Protesters against Mugabe's increasingly authoritarian regime generally avoid straying into this high-security area, as his trigger-happy soldiers have, over the years, shot and killed dozens of motorists for violating curfews around the stadium and Zimbabwe House. So it must have taken extraordinary courage for Olonga and Flower to make their historic protest right under the noses of Mugabe's security men.
If truth be told, they might have hoped for a better reception. They got a muted response from the sparse crowd of spectators, mostly schoolchildren, partly because of the Zimbabwean government's threat to quell any protests ruthlessly, and partly because it was not a big match anyway - Namibia are novices in world cricket. Away from the ground, Zimbabweans generally applauded the two cricketers, although the state media launched a scathing attack on Olonga as a "lackey of the whites". In the international press, their actions were noted and widely praised; even the odd interview with Olonga was printed. But that's as far as it went.
Meanwhile, Mugabe, the ageing Zimbabwean leader, who has ruled with impunity since independence from Britain in 1980, was continuing with his war on his own people - both black and white. Oppose his rule and you immediately walk into his line of fire. So it was no …