From infants to the frail elderly, no one is safe as Zanu-PF killers hunt down the opposition
Sunday Times | Jun 29, 2008
Douglas Marle in Harare
There was a tremendous hammering on the door of her home. Realising that President Robert Mugabe’s thugs were hunting for her, Agnes Mabhena, the wife of an opposition councillor, quickly hid under the bed. It was too late for her to grab Blessing, her 11-month-old baby, who was crying on top of it.
“She’s gone out. Let’s kill the baby,” she heard a member of the gang say. The next thing she saw from under the bed was Blessing’s tiny body hitting the concrete floor with a force that shattered his tiny legs.
“It is just a baby – leave it alone,” another said, and the thugs left. All day Mabhena stayed at home with her screaming son, too terrified to move. Her neighbours, knowing that the family were regarded as opponents of Mugabe, were too frightened to help.
When all was quiet, she slipped out of the house with the baby to seek help in Harare. The 12-mile walk to Harvest House, the headquarters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), took most of the night.
The building was awash with fleeing victims of the terror. But in the chaos there was nobody to get her to hospital. With a relative’s help, she eventually reached the Parirenyatwa hospital, where Blessing, so named because she and her husband thought he was a gift from God, was x-rayed.
Now, encased in plaster, his little legs stick out at an odd angle below his blue romper suit. Unless he has orthopaedic help soon, he may never walk.
Agnes and Blessing squatted for two weeks in a park during the day and hid at Harvest House at night to escape the police and Zanu-PF youths. Her blanket stolen, she survived in a pitiful condition on one meal a day. Her milk dried up. Blessing had only water for three days. “When there is no hope of food, your hunger dies,” she said.
Last Tuesday her husband found her in the park. He told her their house had been burnt down and they were destitute. He tried to send election observers from the Southern African Development Council (SADC) to see it but they were turned back at a Zanu-PF roadblock.
Last night Agnes and Blessing were sheltering in a draughty church with 20 other women and 15 babies. The only furniture was three plastic chairs. The children had a little porridge to eat.
There was no guarantee they would be safe as the vicious crackdown on MDC supporters continued across Zimbabwe this weekend and victims were warned that if they sought treatment they would be killed.
These were no idle threats. Yesterday, as early counting of votes cast in Friday’s one-sided presidential election indicated a landslide win for Mugabe, 84, reports were reaching Harare of shallow graves in the countryside where unknown and unidentified victims of the violent campaign to keep him in power had been buried.
The Zimbabwe Herald reported that “peace and tranquillity” had reigned during the election and contrasted Mugabe’s victory – inevitable after his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, withdrew – with Gordon Brown’s “humiliating defeat” in the Henley by-election.
However, in Mudzi, a former Zanu-PF stronghold 100 miles north of Harare that backed the MDC in the first round of the election in March, secret burials had taken place.
It was there that Temba Muronde, an MDC supporter, was beaten with an iron bar in April. As his wife tried to carry him on a cart to a clinic, he was abducted and taken to a Zanu-PF torture base, where he was forced to eat rat poison. He did not die, so his tormentors gave him a pesticide. When he was still alive and in agony a week later, they killed him with an axe.
Although the reported death toll in the election stood at 87 at the end of last week, an MDC official said this was an “overly conservative figure” based on information from doctors who had certified the deaths. There were believed to be several other graves in Mudzi alone.
Government sources said last night they expected Mugabe to be sworn in today before flying to an African Union summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh in the hope of being greeted as Zimbabwe’s rightful president.
Leaders of Kenya, Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia and Nigeria have all condemned Mugabe’s use of violence. Officials from Tanzania and Botswana have said they would be prepared to send in troops.
But with 30 of its 53 member states ruled by dictators, the African Union seemed unlikely to join in refusing to recognise Mugabe and calling for a government of national unity.
Mugabe, who declared during the campaign that only God could remove him, has already made it clear he will challenge anyone at the summit who dares to question his methods.
“Some African countries have done worse things,” he told the Herald. “I would like some African leaders who are making these statements to point at me and we would see if those fingers would be cleaner than mine.”
Any hopes that the violence might abate after the voting gave way this weekend to fears that it would intensify into an attempt to extirpate the MDC until the opposition party ceased to be a threat. Nelson Chamisa, an MDC spokesman, said: “They stole this election – now they are going to spill more blood.”
He said security forces planned to launch Operation Red Finger to track down people who had stayed away from the polling stations. Voters had their little finger dyed with ink.
In the farmlands around Chegutu, southwest of Harare, voting for the MDC was virtually eliminated, with 100% support for Mugabe reported at some polling stations.
This followed a drive to force local labourers on the dwindling number of white-owned farms – down from 300 eight years ago to 30 today – to attend a series of indoctrination sessions at which they were “taught” to vote for Mugabe.
The staff of one farm were ordered to go to a pungwe, or “reeducation” vigil, at 1pm last Monday. They did not return to their homes until Thursday. “All the way through the night they were not allowed to sit down once as they sang Zanu-PF songs and chanted slogans. Anyone who got it wrong was beaten,” one reluctant participant said.
They were then ordered to attend a second session immediately, in preparation for Friday’s vote. By the time they got to the polling station before 7am on Friday they were exhausted from sleep deprivation and in no doubt as to where on the ballot paper they should put their cross.
Just to be certain, they were assembled in groups of 10 outside the polling station. They were told the ballot papers were numbered and this would be matched with their identity details so that Zanu-PF would know exactly how they voted. One threat was that they would have their heads cut off if they did not support Mugabe.
The pungweswere held at militia terror bases on land seized from white farmers since 2000 and turned into resettlement areas. They were an ugly throw-back to the struggle to end white minority rule, when guerrilla fighters secretly gathered villagers together in the forest to indoctrinate them against colonial rule in the 1970s.
At least one man was reported to have been killed at one of these pungwes in the Chegutu area. According to an eyewitness, he knew he would be targeted because last Wednesday morning a militant banged on his mother’s door and told her that this was the last day she would see her son alive.
He had no choice but to attend the meeting to save his mother from punishment. When he tried to slip away, his escape was noticed and 50 youths were sent in pursuit.
After a chase through the fields they caught him. A witness said: “He fell to the ground screaming, ‘Please don’t kill me.’ They lifted him up and hit him back down again and then beat him again and again. At the end his body was covered in ghastly wounds. I think it was a slow death.”
At Chegutu, as elsewhere, the army was running Mugabe’s violent election campaign on the orders of the generals in the joint operations command. The local man in command was a Major Tauye, who wore civilian clothes but carried a sidearm and fired shots in the air.
A second key figure in the local terror structure was Gilbert Moyo, a 55-year-old war veteran wanted for stock theft, a crime carrying a nine-year mandatory sentence, who had recently evicted six white farmers from their land.
Last week he forcibly evicted Richard Etheridge, 71, perhaps Zimbabwe’s most successful citrus fruit farmer, with a multi-million-pound export business to the Middle East.
The intimidation by war veterans was by no means confined to the countryside. One terror base where offenders were beaten last week was a single-storey building on waste ground a few hundreds yards from the residence of the Dutch ambassador in Chisipite, one of Harare’s most upmarket residential districts.
Another was a shopping centre in the crowded suburb of Sunningdale, where vicious interrogations were taking place and a 65-year-old woman who was denounced by her lodger, a Zanu-PF supporter, for possession of MDC T-shirts was beaten. She feared she would be killed if she went to hospital. Instead, she suffered at home.
A well-known Aids activist and MDC supporter, Gertrude Ukomba, was evicted from her home and went into hiding with her 10-year-old grandson, who was being sought by local Zanu-PF militants to force his mother to return from America.
In the end, the campaign of intimidation was pressed so hard that instead of breaking Tsvangirai at the polls, as intended, it left him no choice but to withdraw.
When he toured Harare last weekend to gauge the popular mood, he was dismayed to find that nobody waved at him. Even though the city was an MDC stronghold, people were too afraid to show their allegiance.
“He did not want that translated into a national vote. He really sensed there had been a change,” a colleague said. “In addition, his national executive council told him they could not put polling agents into 75% of the polling stations, which would leave the vote wide open to rigging. All the blood and pain and violence made him decide it was best to cut his losses and pull out.”
Tsvangirai’s decision to seek sanctuary in the Dutch embassy wrong-footed the government, forcing it to give diplomatic assurances about his safety.
Yet despite the international condemnation – this week Britain and America are expected to call for sanctions at the UN Security Council, including an arms embargo – Mugabe remained defiant. Few expect him to bow to pressure from fellow African leaders for a power-sharing deal with the MDC. Tsvangirai himself said it was a “dream” to expect his MDC to join Zanu-PF.
Whatever is planned, the next few months are bound to be grim for Zimbabweans already faced with deepening economic hardship, hunger and unemployment. Thousands are expected to flee abroad.