Rural Matabeleland'S whites are clearing out of the countryside, fearing an upsurge of violence over Easter and in effect leaving one-third of Zimbabwe to the blackpopulation.
Richard Emmett was trying to keep them calm yesterday. In a steady stream, livestock farmers came to his office at the Commercial Farmers' Union (CFU) in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city.
The worried white voices succeeded one another: "Did you hear about the gang rape near Harare?" "Is it true that all the flights out of the country are full?" "The body of a farm worker has been found on David Stevens' farm." "Any news from Butty or Rob?" "Was that explosion in Filabusi for real?"
Mr Emmett, acting president of the local CFU, mostly did not know the answers. His phones rang incessantly - land lines and mobiles - the radio scraped, and the unanswerable questions kept coming.
He said: "Ninety per cent of farms have been evacuated and we have advised members to bring their firearms into town so that they are not left out there. People want to know the situation. They really want to go back, if only for the day.
"But after Martin Olds was shot on Tuesday, we cannot tell them to go. We have heard that 350 armed men are in the townships, preparing a strike over Easter."
With the unanswerable questions came the puzzlement and sadness. "Some of us go back seven generations; where are we to go?" said Richard Pascall.
Mike Mylne, a cattle farmer from south of Bulawayo, had spent the night in the city but was desperate to return home. "I am worried for my workers. Some of them have been with me for 30 years. They cannot escape to the city. I feel I have abandoned them. I am going back," he said, as he climbed into his truck.
Others, like Peter Nash, had left their farms in such a hurry on Wednesday that they wanted to return, just for the day. "I need to go and get my passport and a few documents. We are going to hide the silver and pick up my wife's jewellery," he said, pledging to phone in on his return to Bulawayo.
The people of Matabeleland are used to terror. From 1983 to 1988, the last time President Robert Mugabe felt a need to humble opposition, at least 10,000 people were murdered in cold blood. That time, the enemy was Zapu, the rival liberation group. This time it is the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which threatens to win elections if they are ever held.
"This is not about land, it is about power," said Gay Wilde, a sheep farmer manning the phones. "This is just like the Eighties when they cut open pregnant women's stomachs just to terrorise Zapu. He is prepared to murder anyone, not just MDC supporters but anyone who might know someone who might intend to support them. He is very angry.
"In reality, Mugabe knows that if we [whites] are thrown off the land, the country will starve within a week and he will not have the dollars he needs to travel," said Ms Wilde.
She added, to enthusiastic nods, that she would not take her prize-winning sheep to the annual Bulawayo Agricultural Show, planned for 1 May.
"You're absolutely right," said Ezra Ndlovu, a 44-year-old beef and dairy farmer who suggested that all farmers should boycott shows and sales and "starve the country" until President Mugabe stops the violence. Mr Ndlovu, who is black and born on a tribal reserve, felt that "land is one thing and politics is another". He said: "I see myself as a simple shepherd who has been given a few cattle, and when I die they will go to the state.''
Nevertheless, Mr Ndlovu felt the CFU leadership should have entered into talks with President Mugabe weeks ago. A British-trained accountant who went into farming in 1988 and is now an active member of the mainly-white CFU, he agreed that the land issue was a "political gimmick".
"To put forward the idea that every Zimbabwean should have a piece of land is ludicrous," he said. "The solution is not to create more subsistence farmers, it is to enhance productivity so that food gets cheaper for everyone."
Mr Ndlovu is one of the top dairy farmers in Matabeleland, with 400 cattle, half of them dairy cows, and his black skin currently works in his favour. He and his wife, Effie, have no plans to evacuate their farm, Weltervreden. "I have an excellent relationship with the police and it is improving. They hear a black voice on the phone and their attitude is quite friendly," he said, after calling Filabusi police station to organise an escort for Mr Nash.
But the conversation kept coming back to rumours of bangs and blasts and missing farmers. Martin Olds was a close friend, said Mr Ndlovu, and his death in a three-hour gun battle on Tuesday was a disgrace.
"This violence has to stop. I have a black skin and I am a commercial farmer. He was white, that is the only difference. As far as I am concerned, everyone is as indigenous as I am."Reuse content