May he never rest in peace.
May he never rest in peace. Kevin Hagen / GETTY

Let's make this short.

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Back in 1989, I attended a small college near Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. There was lots of snow, a river of ice frozen along the school's library, and 11 students from sunny Zimbabwe. I was one of the 11. But to my surprise, none of the other Zimbabweans wanted to meet or talk to me. While walking to this or that class, they would pass by me without even looking at me. I was bewildered. I eventually blew off their open hostility and moved on with my studies. But then, six months later, something extraordinary happened.

One of the Zimbabwean students invited me to a gathering with the other Zimbabwean students. I accepted the invitation, but I did not know what to make of it. I had seen them on the campus almost everyday (there were only 2,000 students on campus). They had not hidden the fact that they hated me. Why the friendly orientation now?

At the gathering, which took place at the student center, all became clear. I entered the room, took a seat, and accepted the offer of a can of Pepsi. The other students talked among themselves not in Shona, but in Ndebele.

Finally, one student came out into the open and said: "Charles, you look a little flustered. I know why. I will explain. We did not talk to you because we thought you were a Shona. But then one of the professors informed us you are a Manica. We did not know that. So, welcome to our group."

I must explain what this all means and how it all relates to the concentration camps that are still sprouting on the U.S. border with Mexico.

I'm a Manica. We are the small group in a society dominated by two groups. The largest is Shona. The second-largest is Ndebele. Manicas are next to nothing. We live in the mountains along the country's eastern border. We are highlanders.

Now, there is a long, pre-European history between Ndebeles and Shonas, the dominant groups of modern Zimbabwe. But I do not want to get into all that in this post, nor the fact that the war for independence was first organized by Ndebeles and then later Shonas. Let's put that aside and turn to this is key historical fact: After the war was won in 1980, and black rule was restored in Zimbabwe, the peace did not last for long.

Mugabe began an undeclared war between his Shona-dominated government and the Ndebeles, who mostly lived in Matabeleland (three provinces in southwest Zimbabwe). My point: Mugabe killed thousands upon thousands of Ndebeles on the justification that he was eradicating dissidents (men who did not want the war of independence to end).

This story is complicated—I can't do it justice in this post—but the upshot is this: In the mid-1980s, Zimbabwe experienced a genocide authorized by Robert Mugabe.

Now, what has this to do with Trump's concentration camps? It is this: During the genocide, I and many others had no idea how violent and destructive the operation to uproot dissidents was. Our papers reported a few bad men were killed. The army's 5th Brigade was restoring order. Not much at all here to get worked up about. Mugabe was defending the integrity of the independence.

In Harare, which is only a 5-hour drive from the capital of Matabeleland, Bulawayo, we went to nightclubs, bought groceries, went to work, watched music videos on Sounds on Saturday. The sun rose and fell like any other day. But nothing could be further from the truth. Only a few hours away from the tranquil capital, thousands of people were being slaughtered by Mugabe's forces. I didn't know the scale of this crime until I was in that room with Ndebele students at that small college in Pennsylvania.

My point: The U.S. has erected concentration camps on the border. This should be alarming. But the world for those in places in Seattle and Portland and New York City and elsewhere has the appearance of being business-as-usual. This might very well be just an illusion. If, say, Trump lost the 2020 election, and some real accounting of what happened in the concentration camps between 2017 and 2020 came to light, do not be surprised if the scale of the atrocities is far greater than we ever imagined. Many Americans might find themselves in the position I was in when I learned of Mugabe's crimes against humanity.