Inside Mugabe's torture camps: beaten, maimed and poisoned with weedkiller

As Robert Mugabe sought recognition from African leaders yesterday, his police have been arresting the "dangerous" opposition agents that Mr Mugabe accuses of fomenting violence in the country.

Mrs Chigoro is one of them. She is considered such a threat she is being kept under armed police guard at a Harare hospital.

Seventy years old, her injuries are so horrific she can no longer lie on her back or walk unassisted.

She can only huddle in a claw-like shape. The appalling chemical burns that have removed her lips and melted her right cheek come from an industrial weedkiller she was forced to drink. The widow can eat no solids and survives with the aid of a saline drip.

Her crime was to survive the death squads that have roamed the rural areas of this bankrupt and terrified country. The police, armed with AK-47s, have been stationed on her ward to stop her from telling her story.

Gibb Chigoro, her son, had known that he was at risk. He was the first Movement for Democratic Change candidate to win a council seat in the ruling party stronghold of Mashonaland Central. After the first round win, he had watched the militia, police and army let loose on opposition supporters, with scores killed, thousands beaten and 200,000 displaced.

The chaos arrived at the Chigoro house on Friday, 20 June, one week before the run-off election.

An armed mob of some 250, led by the son of the defeated Zanu-PF councillor, Robson Dhlamini, approached the house demanding to see the MDC man. Inside was Mrs Chigoro, two of her sons, a daughter and two grandchildren.

Gibb armed himself with a pistol before going outside. After threats, shots were fired by both sides until the councillor was hit in the shoulder and the calf. Once on the floor, they set upon him with iron bars, his mother recalled, breaking his arms and legs. The rest of the family received the same treatment. Her other son, Hamilton, was shot in the leg before his arm and face were smashed with the bars.

The old woman was not spared. "They hit me on my back and ribs. As they beat me, they said to me: 'Did you think you could get away with betraying your country? You, old woman did you think you'd get away with this?' I saw them shoot my son again before I fainted."

When she came to, she found that the brutally beaten family had been dragged to a clearing in the village.

In a ritual humiliation that has been repeated throughout Zimbabwe, Gibb was forced to renounce his party and insult the MDC leader. Then they called for volunteers from the village to execute him. She did not recognise the man that pulled the trigger.

Murder complete, they were put back on the pick-up – one of the hundreds of new Mahandra vehicles with no number plates that have been purchased by the bankrupt state and issued to the death squads.

Another stop was made to shoot dead Hama Madamombe, a well known local MDC supporter, and abduct his brother.

The surviving family was transported to the Tetra farm about 30 miles away, one of the thousands of commercial farms seized by the Mugabe regime. It now belongs to the notoriously violent Chigwada brothers, Effluence and Shami, who have set up one of the Zanu torture camps there.

By the time they arrived at the camp, it was dark. The beatings that had begun mid-morning started again. No one remembers how long they went on.

But when their torturers grew tired they brought out the bottles of Paraquat – a Chinese-manufactured herbicide, used to kill weeds.

It has become a weapon of choice in Zimbabwe's political terror campaign and the militia have been instructed to dip their sticks in it before beating victims.

The four terrified survivors were then forced to drink it. Mrs Chigoro remembers her son, Hamilton, telling her not to swallow the burning liquid.

A doctor described the effects of Paraquat: "It's absorbed through the skin, the heart rate plunges and it attacks the nervous system. It acts on skin in a similar way to ammonia."

The message not to swallow failed to reach the brother of the murdered MDC supporter. He died in agony.

Miraculously the daughter, Susan, was able – despite critical injuries – to drag herself out of the camp in the night and find a police station that was willing to act on her pleas and go to the farm to rescue her mother and brother.

Their ordeal did not end there. They were shadowed by their assailants from the camp and Susan was later arrested by police who have been ordered to co-operate with the torturers.

Three armed police from Mashonaland now stand guard over mother and son who were transferred to a hospital in Harare. Both face being rearrested if they survive their injuries.

Shepherd Mushonga is their local MP – one of only two MDC winners in his region – he has also been in hiding but has tried to document their ordeal.

He said of the torturers: "Armed by the state, ordered by the state, they're getting away with murder. If the world does not learn of what happened it will happen again. This is the tip of the iceberg."

"One of the reasons for the viciousness in this area was that Zanu thought it had total control until the March upset. We won and we have paid the consequences in broken bones. This is war against defenceless families."

Mrs Chigoro said: "I have been through the liberation war but I never believed I would live through something like this. I never saw anything like what has happened to my family."