By Martin Muleya
The Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) has refuted sensational claims doing rounds in Mutare that 12 Zimbabweans were buried alive by a Belarus Company at Premier, while engaged in artisinal mining activities.
Zhongjian Investments was contracted by a Belarus company to do “land reclamation” by closing the open shafts that had been left open by artisinal miners in search of gold.
Speaking before a Parliamentary Committee on Mines and Mining Development that toured the concession Sunday, Acting Officer Commanding Mutasa District Superintendent Phillip Nyateka confirmed that notification of land reclamation was about to be done to the local communities and that people should vacate the open shafts they were working in.
“The area concerned which is Premier our duty was to provide security and not lead the investor in doing his operations. We were nt involved in anything other than providing what we are sanctioned to do by the Constitution.
“Reports we received of missing persons were three. The first one turned out to be positive. There was a man who was living with his in-laws who hoodwinked him to believe they were heading to Mutare river, only to find out after two days that his in-laws were buried alive in one of the open shafts by the Zhongjian caterpillars, explained Supt Nyateka.
He said upon learning of the fate of the duo, they sought assistance from the company now under the armpit of Civil Protection Unit, and the shaft that they were suspected to have been buried was positively identified.
He also disputed that no Mozambicans had been flocking the gold rich mining area but that the people who swarmed Premier for illegal gold mining activities were all Zimbabweans.
The police boss said these two men who were retrieved from the shaft had their relatives informed of their demise and were taken to Buhera for burial.
“We received another report to the effect that they were nine people who had been buried alive in one of the shafts. We tried to search for these people with the help of our informant and couldn’t locate them. That person did not have any particulars of these said people.
“The third report we received was from a man who had gone to buy food and returned after 4 to 5hrs he noticed that the shaft had been closed. So his friend whom he thot had been buried underneath had already escaped and was found working at a nearby village alive.
“So the so-called nine bodies claimed to be missing was just hearsay. Of all the three reports we received, the one with two bodies retrieved from the shaft turned out to be true.
We do not have any outstanding reports of people missing from the shafts as police,” added Supt Nyateka.
Contrary to some media reports that claimed that 12 Zimbabwean artisanal miners could have been buried alive by a Zhongjian Investments, at Premier Estate outside Mutare.
The report went on to claim that 2 bodies were recovered and no rescue efforts were underway to recover the 10 missing artisanal miners.
‘That a visit to Premier Estate and interviews held to a number of artisanal miners confirmed that indeed 13 artisanal miners went underground but one immediately went out having realized his torch batteries had no power. When he returned to the shaft he saw dozers filling the entrance and he immediately notified them of the presence of 12 artisanal miners underground. No one listened. Instead he was heavily assaulted by Police. He notified other artisanal miners and as concern grew over the safety of the trapped miners, a half hearted rescue operation was carried out resulting in the retrieval of 2 bodies’.
Zhongjian Investments general manager Yancey Feng sang from a different hymn book.
He said sometime in August 2020 his company entered into a partnership with a Belarus company.
They had been contracted by the Belarus company to do land reclamation on all the open shafts that had been previously used by artisinal miners for farming since riverbed mining had been banned by Government.
“We were contracted by Belarus company to come and close all the shafts opened by miners and protect their land. So when we came in September and we noticed there too many illegal miners and took all the necessary steps. After that on the 6th of this month we held a meeting with the local leaders so that all of them would communicate with their communities.
“The people were given two day notices from the 8th to the 10th of November to stop all their illegal mining activities and vacate those places as it now belongs to them,” explained the manager.
He went on to say that on the 11th of November they went to the shafts in the company of police officers who were warning illegal miners in all the shafts to vacate the shafts. He also told the Parliamentary Committee that most of those illegal miners operating in those shafts were not Zimbabweans but refugees from the neighbouring Mozambique.
He went on to say their machinery started moving after an hour and half had elapsed after the police had made the announcement.
Feng literally emphasised that it was the police who were leading the land reclamation exercise while they followed from behind and would close the shaft once the police confirmed there were no people inside the shafts.
“We had to move our machines on the 11th together with the police that we started land reclamation. This means the police would check each and every shaft calling out names to come out and then we proceeded to close the shafts.
“On the 14th of this month that is when somebody came escorted by the police claiming that they suspect there might be people still trapped underground. The police asked for our help them open those shafts and we offered the help with our machines.
“We dug the said shaft and retrieved two bodies. One of the bodies had some scars and that body did not look like the shaft had collapsed two days ago but it seemed it had been buried for a long time. However we helped the families to repatriate the bodies to their respective homes for burial.
“We spent three days digging another shift in the company of the police and local leaders but in this second shaft we did not retrieve any bodies. Since that day we were instructed to stop operations in that shaft by Government and we have abided to that.
“For the past two days there has been rumors that those illegal miners are still stealing the gold ore in that open shaft at night we were told to cease operations,” Feng added.
Chairperson of Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Mines and Mining Development Hon Edmond Mukaratikwa speaking on the sidelines of the visit of Premier estate had no kind words for Zhongjian management.
“We came on a fact finding mission on an accident that claimed two lives, at least according to the information we have now. This disaster happened in this mining area where a contractor with mining equipment was conducting operations.
This is a contractor is purporting to have been contracted by a Belarus company to undertake reclamation activities.
We witnessed a lot of land degradation, a lot of pigs which is evidence of artisinal mining activities. This is an area we are seized with at the moment in view to formalise this area so we have responsible mining being undertaken by artisinal and small scale miners.
What this will do is in terms of training, capacity building, them being receptive in carrying out safe mining methods and to be monitored so they channel their proceeds to Fidelity.
However our concern is that mining activities are prone to disasters. Our findings are pointing to an accident as a result of negligence. The tone we hear is that word went around only for two days that miners should vacate the area to pave way for reclamation activities by the new investor. What we see is resistance because the information confirmed by the police the two sneaked from where they were hibernating, it would appear the informant is the same who pointed out to the shaft that two bodies were retrieved which is a sign of resistance, highlighted Mukaratikwa.
He reiterated that there was a gap in terms of interaction between contractors and the local communities.
Mukaratikwa emphasized that headmen, Councillors and local legislator have their own way of making sure formal communications reaches all communities so that such reclamation activities are being carried out resistance would be minimised.
He said the company responsible for reclamation (Zhongjian) did not have an Environment Health and Safety Quality Assurance officer and were heavily relying on the services of the police.
“The role of the police has been confined to maintain order which was misconstrued by the contractor to mean that the police are there to provide security to the company. This is a gap that we realized and our conclusion is that this accident could have been avoided. However it signifies the rampant accidents occuring through out the country though we are aware mining is associated with a lot of disasters.
“Our Mines and Minerals Bill for a long time has been speaking to safer mining activities but mainly in view of large scale miners and neglecting the small scale and illegal miners. This is why we are considering that the Mines and Minerals Amendment Bill we are seized with should be able to examine and come up with mechanisms that will enable, formalisation, training and involvement of small scale miners while also observing proper safety mining procedures,” added Hon Mukaratikwa.
Zhongjian Investments entered into partnership with a Belarus company which was originally brought in to do riverbed mining is now reclaiming the land to venture into farming following government directive to ban riverbed mining.