Chenjerai Hunzvi

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The Independent Online

Chenjerai Hitler Hunzvi, soldier and activist: born 1950; twice married (two sons, two daughters); died Harare 4 June 2001.

Chenjerai Hunzvi came to prominence last year as the leader of black Zimbabweans intent on taking over white-owned land.

At first, it was Hunzvi's middle name, Hitler, that grabbed the world headlines. Later, it became clear that the war veterans' leader and his henchmen not only held the country's commercial farmers to ransom but also its president, Robert Mugabe, and other top leaders in the country's struggle for liberation.

Hunzvi seemed to derive demonic pleasure from his power. He enjoyed being referred to as Hitler, which he insisted had been his middle name from birth rather than a nom de guerre or nickname. "Hitler is my name. We are similar. Like him, I am tall," he told me in an interview last year.

Implicated in the misuse of public funds, including stealing money destined for heroes of the struggle to end white rule in Rhodesia, Hunzvi, the chairman of the Zimbabwe National War Veterans' Association, went to his grave with the secret of how and why he had been allowed to attain prominence. By the time he died, Hunzvi was, effectively, Mugabe's chief warrior ­ the architect of nearly 2,000 occupations of white-owned farms and the instigator of violence which claimed up to 50 lives in the run-up to parliamentary elections at the end of June 2000.

When he wanted higher pensions for the members of the War Veterans' Association ­ whom he claimed numbered 11,000 ­ he seemed to be able to extract it from the President. In 1997, he led veterans in a series of demonstrations for higher pensions. Many economists claim that the pay hike they won was a powerful factor in the first major devaluation of the Zimbabwe dollar and the beginning of the economy's descent into freefall.

In 1998, he threatened to launch attacks in Harare's wealthy northern suburbs after accusing white industrialists of collaborating with trade unionists to destabilise the economy. "We shall campaign everywhere, including in buses and in bars, to keep President Mugabe and Zanu-PF [the ruling party] in power," he said at the time.

He seemed, mostly, off-the-wall. A number of respected elders of the war against Ian Smith's rule considered Hunzvi an impostor who had never fought at the front. Hunzvi claimed to have joined the liberation struggle at the age of 16. He said he had been interned at Gonakudzingwa and Wha Wha prisons in the period between 1967 and 1970 and had undergone guerrilla training in Zambia in 1974.

He claimed he was held with Joshua Nkomo and Josiah Chinamano ­ prominent leaders of the struggle who have since died. He claimed that, after his imprisonment, he became "external affairs officer", based in Botswana, for the Zimbabwe African Popular Union (Zapu) ­ Nkomo's liberation group. He claimed later to have been director of administration for the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (Zipra) and chief representative of Zapu in Poland. Recently, a retired lieutenant-colonel, Thomas Ngwenya, a former member of Zipra's leadership, went public to state that Hunzvi never had been, as he had claimed, a member of the organisation's high command.

It is known that Hunzvi travelled to Poland and represented Zapu there during his medical studies in the late 1970s. He married a Polish woman but the union ended after two children were born, Andrew, now 17, and Ngoni, four. In White Slave, a book published in 1994, Hunzvi's Polish wife claimed he had mistreated her and that she was finally forced to flee Zimbabwe in 1992. Magda Tunzvi (a pseudonym) claimed in the book that her husband had been an "unfaithful, vain sadist" who beat her regularly. She said they met at Warsaw University in the 1970s and that he was a freedom fighter "who never held a gun". She also said he boasted of having a white wife but became jealous and violent with the years.

Hunzvi said he qualified as a doctor in 1990 and returned home to work at Harare Central Hospital. Later, he opened a surgery at Budiriro, Harare, denounced last year by Amnesty International as a "torture chamber". He married again, and had another son, Munyaradzi, now aged three.

Believed to have suffered from "heart and pulmonary complications", he is the third of President Mugabe's closest allies to have died in a month. Border Ghezi, the chief strategist in Mugabe's campaign to remain in power after the 2002 presidential elections, was killed in a road accident a month ago. His defence minister, Moven Mahachi, died in another car accident last week. There is no evidence that the deaths are connected. But without Mahachi, Ghezi and Hunzvi the campaign by Mugabe to stay in power has become a much lonelier one.

Alex Duval Smith