'Many will die so Mugabe can stay in power'

Black farm workers in Matabeleland predict a return to the violence of the 1980s when the Fifth Brigade butchered thousands
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Tony Blair and other politicians who are aghast at the brutality and double-speak which President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is deploying to stay in power should have a lunchtime beer with Charles, Cowboy and Christopher - farmhands in the Filabusi area of Matabeleland South.

"This is the Third Chimurenga [liberation war] of Zimbabwe," said Cowboy Ndlovu matter-of-factly as he pondered the past and the present, and concluded that they were the same. "We had killing and torture, and now it is going to happen again. Many will die so that the President stays in power."

Political activists in Matabeleland - which in the 1980s was the scene of at least 10,000 deaths - believe President Mugabe's campaign of terror is about to switch from white farmers, such as Dave Stevens and Martin Olds who were killed in the last few days, to the defenceless population at large.

"It was the same pattern," said Shari Eppel, who spent six years investigating the 1983-88 massacres. "While he soothed the international community, he was planning more violence at home. On Monday, even as he called the first meeting with the farmers, he knew that Olds was to be killed on Tuesday."

That time, in the brutal years of the "mkuruhundu" (literally: the spring rain that washes away the chaff of the last season), Mr Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) party aimed to humble its rival liberation army, Zapu. He sent the ruthless Fifth Brigade to terrorise Matabeleland, the heartland of Zapu, into submission. After five years in which villagers were tortured and dynamited in quarries, the Zapu leader, Joshua Nkomo, was brought into line.

"This is no different," said Ms Eppel. "In those days, to support Zapu was to be the enemy of Zanu. Now, to support the Movement for Democratic Change [MDC] is to be the enemy. Mugabe has said the MDC will never rule this country, and he believes it."

Charles, Christopher and Cowboy do not usually talk to strangers. It is an unwritten rule in this area where Rhodesia's leaders were surpassed by Zimbabwe's rulers in their cruelty. But beers at the roadside shebeen bring forth the memories. Everybody here lost at least one relative in the 1980s.

"Times are hard and we would like them to be better," Christopher said. "Nothing ever seems to get better in Matabeleland and the [northern] Shonas just want to crush us because we are brighter than they are. Unfortunately there are 10 times more of them than of us. We will vote for whomever seems to offer an improvement. We do not want more violence and the arrival of this new party has brought bad things."

Mr Mugabe has always been a fine manipulator of the illiterate rural masses of his country. Through a network which excludes his own cabinet and runs to the grassroots through governors and district administrators, he sends a powerful message that whites and the rest of the world are to blame for Zimbabwe's economic woes.

Ms Eppel, the author of Breaking The Silence, a report on the mkuruhundu which was compiled using feedback from rural Roman Catholic missionaries, said: "Last time, the Fifth Brigade were his footsoldiers. This time, he is using the so-called war veterans.

"In Matabeleland, the mkuruhundu never became history. Communities continue to live with aggrieved spirits which they have not been able to bury. Death certificates were not issued because the massacres are officially denied and because this would have helped produce a casualty figure.

"Without a death certificate for your father you cannot get the paperwork needed for an identity document. The terror lives on every day in Matabeleland. Just recently, the government sent soldiers here - paratroopers in red berets. The Fifth wore red berets so even a move like that triggers all sorts of memories."

Until Tuesday, when Mr Olds, 44, was killed in what has emerged as a three-hour ordeal in which he was shot first in one leg, then the other, then beaten and finally executed, Matabeleland had not been strongly targeted in the land invasions.

Tom Goddard, a fluent speaker of the Ndebele language who runs a game and beef ranch near Bulawayo, said war veterans' leaders phoned him to ask if they could invade his farm. He told them not to and they did not.

But in the last few days the pressure has mounted. Amid claims that 350 armed men have been brought by bus from the north of Zimbabwe to Matabeleland, he and other farmers have evacuated their farms.

Mr Goddard, 45, who is a local co-ordinator for the opposition MDC, said that forEaster, when farm and factory workers traditionally go back to their villages, his party had launched a campaign called "asahmbeni ekhaya" - let us all go home. "Mugabe has realised that he has a problem on his hands because the MDC is well-organised and strong at grassroots level," he said.

Ms Eppel said the anti-white rhetoric now being used by Mr Mugabe was identical to the anti-Ndebele mood that characterised the 1980s. "The underlying intention now as then is political and does not have anything to do with land," she said. "When he has finished with the whites, he will move on to the rest of the voters.

"Mugabe remains a cunning politician ... who is delighted with all the media coverage of terrified whites. Dissident activities in Matabeleland provided the smoke screen necessary to destroy Zapu in the 1980s, and now he is using the emotive land issue to undermine support for the MDC. The current conflation is that to support the MDC is to support greedy white land owners."