'It's shocking when they kill someone you know'

Click to follow

We have to meet at an outdoor café in a plush white area of Harare because even in the capital, an hour's drive from their farm which is being overrun with war veterans demanding land, Judy Keith, 38, and her husband, Alastair, 44, do not feel entirely safe.

Even here, dark threats of violence against them and their three boys - Graham, 16, Terence, 14, and Dylan, 9 - should they dare to return home continue to drift up from their farm near Marondera, south-east of Harare.

As Mr Keith and other farmers try to figure out how to reclaim their land, the family trust no one with the address of their safe house in the capital. At least they have agreed to be interviewed. Others were too terrified. For death threats against white farmers from veterans of the 1970s black independence struggle, and more youthful comrades, are becoming ubiquitous.

Following the murders of white farmers David Stevens and Martin Olds, and public encouragement of the squatters from President Robert Mugabe, only a fool would not take them seriously. Farmers who appear on television or in newspapers run the risk of being particularly targeted, said a Commercial Farmers' Union official.

Judy Keith smiles but her lips labour against an underlying agitation. "She sometimes gets a bit emotional," confides her sister Shelagh Tozer, 36. "I've come with her for support." Mrs Tozer then lights up the first in a long chain of cigarettes.

She, her husband and children - Genna, 12, and Gerald, 14 - have also fled their farm, at Raffingora, north of Harare, following threats. "Everyone now seems to be in Harare," says Shelagh sadly. White Harare has rallied round farming families. Some have opened their homes to strangers.

David Stevens's blood was shed on Mrs Keith's doorstep. The Keiths have the next-but- one farm to his."It's shocking when it's someone you know," Graham says quietly. Even as Stevens was slowly dying, one of the farmers badly injured trying to rescue him was radioing all the local farms pleading with people to get out. Within two hours most had.

Six weeks after the first squatters arrived at their farm with demands for land, and orders that Mr Keith teach them how to farm it, the family finally had to abandon their 3,500 acres. Mrs Keith reacts angrily to rumours that some of her neighbours might try to reclaim the farms in the next few days. "No way," she says. "It is just too dangerous."

This should be an idyllic time of year. At Easter the tobacco is usually harvested in time for the auctions in Harare. Mrs Keith and Mrs Tozer remember last Easter and all the ones that have gone before. They sound magical. For while Zimbabwe's white farmers are undoubtedly scapegoats in Mr Mugabe's desperate attempt to cling to power, no one could deny they enjoy a lifestyle their black workers - particularly since the economic decline - can only dream of, with pools, tennis courts and fertile land.

"We usually spend Easter together on one of the farms," says Mrs Keith. "We fish, have an Easter-egg hunt and just eat and drink." The sisters are usually joined by their brother Charles, his wife and two children. This year there will be no celebration, with the three families all holed up in the same safe house. "I feel I am on a different planet," says Mrs Keith.

Charles and Alastair arrive later, exhausted from the latest all-day meeting of farmers. "Mugabe does not give a stuff about land," says Mrs Keith. "He is behaving like a cornered rat." Her brother says the attacks on farmers is "political campaigning at its very dirtiest".

They feel that Mr Mugabe has betrayed whites who stayed on after liberation. "Back then Mugabe was saying we had to build Zimbabwe up together," says Mr Keith. He points out that he did not even buy his farm until after the war and that he does not come from a land-owning family. The Tozers only lease their land. Any intentions they had of buying have evaporated. Mrs Tozer says that if Mr Mugabe had meant it to turn out this way he should never have encouraged whites to stay or let them buy farmland.

Mr Keith says farmers recognise land reform is inevitable but that the government has botched previous initiatives. He points out that donor support for land reform was suspended when it was clear reclaimed land was going to Mugabe cronies. And he points to the government's failure to train black commercial farmers. Blacks were resettled years ago on reclaimed land next to his own farm. Since then "it has gone back to bush".

The Keiths, who house 100 employees and their families on their land, are of an enlightened farming generation which does not expect its workers to live in squalor. They provide a school, crêche and healthcare.

While white farmers are often derided for their superior attitudes to black workers, Mrs Tozer says it is the government that underestimates rural people.

"The government thinks the workers are stupid but they are not as naive as they were 20 years ago," she says. She and Mrs Keith make sure employees have access to news. But to Mr Mugabe this would just be evidence that white farmers, in cahoots with the opposition, are helping to steal his traditional voters. Of farmers' support for the opposition, Mr Keith asks what choice they have when Mr Mugabe first scapegoats them and then declares them "enemies of the state".

Though white farmers believe they have nowhere to turn, their black workers are unable even to take refuge in Harare. Until Friday Mr Keith was receiving information about his farm from a loyal and - given the violence - brave employee. Then the war veterans found out. His employee was savagely beaten. Communication has ceased.

In the countryside tensions continue to soar as the MDC instructs members to go home and spread the opposition's message to the rural poor. But in the battle for Zimbabwe, terror is the weapon of the government and, in many places, out of the sight of TV cameras, much blood is being spilled.