HARARE (Reuters) - Helen Kwambana has lived in fear of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his security forces her whole life.
On Saturday she chanted on the streets of the capital for the 93-year-old to step down and took a selfie with a soldier.
Kwambana and tens of thousands of others joined anti-Mugabe marches in Harare, singing and dancing as military helicopters flew overhead and grinning soldiers made token attempts to control the revelers who rushed to embrace them.
Though Mugabe has not agreed to stand down, the crowds oozed with confidence that his time would soon be up, in scenes of jubilant defiance most had never witnessed.
“I have never known freedom,” Kwambana, 23, told Reuters, draped in the Zimbabwean flag and waving to passing cars as drivers honked their horns in celebration.
“It’s like a baby opening its eyes for the first time.”
Mugabe is under house arrest after the army seized power on Wednesday in what it said was an attempt to weed out the “criminals” in his government who helped remove vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa and his allies this month.
Mugabe’s wife, Grace, was seen as being behind the purge as she pursued her own presidential ambitions. Some of the demonstrators held placards emblazoned with Mnangagwa’s face or covered with the words: “No to Mugabe Dynasty”.
Mugabe is accused by many Zimbabweans of ruling like a dictator, destroying a once-promising economy and of numerous human rights abuses during his nearly four decades in power.
Contempt for the “Grand Old Man of Africa” brought together young and old, black and white, in the aptly named Robert Mugabe Street before they marched on to State House - the first time anyone has demonstrated outside the presidential offices without Mugabe’s permission.
“He is an evil man. Very, very wicked,” said Tendai, a 40-year-old laborer who was leading chants of ‘Freedom!’. “Mugabe may be under house arrest but we have been living under country arrest our whole lives.”
Many protesters spoke of their hopes for a better life in a country that has lurched from one crisis to the next and where most of the 16 million people live in poverty, as Mugabe and his family have amassed huge wealth.
The crumbling buildings, boarded up shops and twisted figures of disabled beggars in Harare’s streets bear witness to the poverty many hope will be tackled after Mugabe leaves.
“We were praying for this day to come. Life has been very painful but we have been liberated,” said Kevin Mugwampi, who lost his job as a banker during a 2008 recession.
“Today marks our second independence.”
Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Andrew Bolton