Mugabe's gangs take campaign of terror to towns

The self-styled veterans of the independence war torch homes and businesses of opposition supporters as ruling party fears defeat
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The Independent Online

It is Easter Day, 60 miles north-east of Harare and Joseph, 36, devotee of the Apostolic Church, suddenly stops the car and runs down to the river to dip himself in water and say a special prayer. "We need God on our side," he says, only half- smiling. "We are entering a dangerous place."

We speed through Murewa, where David Stevens, a white farmer, was killed a week ago and Zimbabwe's feared Zanu-PF "war veterans" have a permanent base.

Joseph, who will be a candidate for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) if Zanu-PF honours its obligation to call elections, has a story ready should we be stopped. Not a man to scare easily, he is nervous now. MDC activists have been badly beaten by the veterans in this town.

An hour later we are ankle deep in blackened thatch in the shell of Tendi's restaurant at Nyamapanda, a settlement of 4,000, on the border with Mozambique. In the sweltering sun stand two forlorn blackened plastic tables, one supporting the twisted skeleton of an umbrella. In the fridge by the far wall, soot-caked Coca-Cola and Fanta bottles, welded together, still stand in rows and the stench of rotting meat floats from a blackened deep-freeze.

This is electioneering, Zimbabwe-style. Tendi, once the best restaurant in town, was razed last week, two days after the MDC held a secret meeting in it, and five days after the "war veterans" first came to town. The restaurant's owner is in hiding. "The rumour is that he was a MDC supporter," says a local who dares to talk to Western journalists, currently vilified on state-controlled television.

A white MDC supporter says: "White farmers are suffering but it's Zimbabwe's blacks who are suffering most." For while things are appalling down on the farm, in the isolated, rural bush communities - which Zanu-PF and President Robert Mugabe are dismayed to find they can no longer take for granted - the terror and intimidation is even worse.

It is more than a week since 40 Zanu "war veterans" came to Nyamapanda. Round here the locals make no distinction between Zanu-PF and the veterans. After all, where are the commercial farms for the veterans to squat on if land is their only concern? "The veterans are beating up people in the location [township]," whispers Tendekai, 25, a local opposition sympathiser. "They are burning houses to force people to attend their rallies."

The visit is short. Zanu-PF is holding a rally at the nearby shopping centre. Joseph does not want to meet its members and the white faces with him will only raise suspicion.

It is Joseph's job to get an MDC structure operating in this area, where Zanu-PF usually dominates and the only access to information is state-run radio. The area in which he is standing for election is already considered won, if elections are ever held (and that is not certain) and if they are free and fair (even less certain).

For a party just seven months old - even with Mr Mugabe's unpopularity and the support the MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai enjoys as former head of the trade union movement - toppling Zanu-PF, which holds 147 of the 150 parliamentary seats, would be spectacular. With candidates, activists and even sympathisers being targets for the ruling regime, it may take a miracle.

Twenty-five miles from the border, in an isolated farmstead, Zvichapera, 28, is in hiding. The MDC recruited teachers when it moved into the area. Zvichapera is one of six who have since been assaulted and intimidated by Zanu-PF supporters. "They came to my school but someone told me they were coming and I ran," he says. Four of his fellow teachers were badly beaten. One of their wives was raped in an attack. "I believe they would kill me if they knew where I was," he says. "But I want change. Our economy is destroyed and there is so much corruption. The way Mugabe is running the country is just wrong."

Nixon Makure, 30, a provincial organising secretary for the MDC, has spent nine days in hospital. He was attacked with an iron bar when 1,000 Zanu-PF supporters "ambushed" 300 MDC supporters leaving a rally, and has lost the sight in one eye. "They were armed with stones and guns," he says. The police could not control the situation and the army was called in.

The MDC arranged for him to be moved from his local hospital in Bindura, north of Harare, after a former agent of Mr Mugabe's notorious Central Intelligence Organisation moved into the bed next to his. He and Joseph say the terror will not change their politics. "If we all hide in caves, who is going to do it?" Joseph asks with a shrug. "Ah, mortality..." he adds, as if there were other, more pressing, considerations. Interviewees' names have been changed to protect them