'Hand over your opposition cards and you'll be safe'

Despite a deal to end the murders and beatings, Mugabe's war veterans are still occupying farms and intimidating workers in Zimbabwe
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Down narrow orange dirt track lanes, past abandoned and besieged white farms the convoy drove, behind the notorious Chenjerai "Hitler" Hunzvi, leader of Zanu's war veterans.

The handiwork of the veterans, sanctioned by President Robert Mugabe and his party, Zanu-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front), could not be concealed. Burned farm workers' homes and, across the road from the destruction, shameless "vets" camped out, still intimidating local people.

Mr Hunzvi, middle-aged and in a suit, sped past, bound on a PR mission for an invaded farm to make the first announcement to his vets of their "deal" reached with Zimbabwe's commercial farmers that he claims will end the violence, but, as yet, not the occupations. Farmers yesterday said they had agreed the vets could remain squatting on farms until a new land distribution programme, being hammered out, is started.

Three big middle-aged white men used to being bosses, accompanied Hunzvi to show peace had broken out. But by the time the three representatives of the Commercial Farmers Union had reached Lonely Park Farm, where farmer Paul Retzlaff, his family and his workers were attacked two weeks ago by axe-wielding Zanu members and veterans, they could not have looked more uncomfortable.

Perhaps they suspected what the visit would become and no amount of public relations could paper over the ugly truth that the "deal" left farm workers at the mercy of Zanu and would almost certainly harm the progress of the Movement for Democratic Change, the opposition party challenging Mr Mugabe.

This was no meeting of equals. The three farmers stood back. Mr Hunzvi and his Zanu followers were in charge. You could taste the fear as more than 100 farm labourers gradually gathered under the beating sun and waited for the tall Zanu official, in a soft gangster's hat, and a troop of suited local officials flanked by thuggish young men to pay homage to Mr Hunzvi.

"There had been no beatings here," insisted one blank-faced young man in a Mugabe T-shirt, among 40 Zanu supporters. He saw no contradiction between his age at 22 and his claim to be a veteran of Zimbabwe's war of independence.

But there were clues why the workers stood so meekly on the grass. One of his comrades was walking around trailing a metre-long tangle of barbed wire, covered at one end with insulating tape. The youth hid it at first but gradually grew bold. Another Zanu T-shirted vet carried a thick length of rope knotted in several places and another had a heavy club.

"They only beat us at first," said James, one of the workers cowering on the grassy verge, nervous of talking as Zanu youths in T-shirts promising "revolutionary change" skirted the crowd. The beatings ended said, after workers handed in their MDC T-shirts and membership cards. The vets burned them. "There were 33 MDC members on the farm and they were beaten hardest," he said.

Then the Zanu rally started with chants for Mr Hunzvi, the party and Mr Mugabe. Suddenly every single labourer rapturously raised their hands and shouted the appropriate slogans. Zanu members checked for zealousness on the sidelines. "They are saying, 'Let's go for it with Zanu," whispered James, translating as Hunzvi and his henchmen shouted orders in Shona.

So is James going to vote for Zanu now? "Of course," he said. He said it was his boss, the white farmer, who had encouraged them to fight the veterans and it was also his boss that had promoted MDC membership.

"They are telling us to turn from the MDC and come home to Zanu and that we must respect the ruling party," he said.

Mr Hunzvi told the gathering land would be given to the people. He said the violence should stop but the occupations would remain. His wider message was for obedience to Zanu in rural areas once the party's heartland.

Nick Swaynepoel, the leader of the farmers' delegation, looked defeated. Was he pleased with the event? He shrugged as if to say, "Where is the choice?"

Was he pleased it had turned into a party rally? "We are only interested in the peace part," he said.