Mugabe's thugs push Zimbabwe towards race war

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The Independent Online

As my car descended a steep section of the highway into Chinhoyi yesterday, I was suddenly gripped by an acute sense that Zimbabwe is sliding into a dark and bottomless pit.

I was not only unnerved by the tense atmosphere around Chinhoyi magistrates' court, where 23 white farmers were at a bail hearing after being charged with "inciting violence" against black squatters. Now came news of at least 30 white families packing up and fleeing their Chinhoyi homes.

I had barely recovered from the horrific experience of covering a parliamentary by-election in Bindura two weeks ago. There I interviewed opposition supporters who had been maimed, tortured and raped by ruling Zanu-PF party supporters during the campaign period of the by-election.

There was no doubt in my mind that Zimbabwe, for long an oasis of peace and stability in volatile Africa, was now on a dangerous knife-edge.

The violence in my country, which suddenly erupted again this week with the clashes between the white farmers in Chinhoyi and the self-styled war veterans doing the bidding of President Robert Mugabe, is threatening to become a race war.

The cries of Graham Coleman, a South African tourist, are still fresh in my mind.

Mr Coleman was in Zimbabwe on holiday but was abducted and detained by war veterans as soon as he arrived at his brother's farm in Marondera.

"I had read about violence in Zimbabwe but I didn't know it was this bad. I wish I had not come here," Mr Coleman had said as he wept down the telephone to me two days ago. He sounded like all the other victims of political violence inspired by Zanu-PF whom I had spoken to over the past few weeks.

They include peasants who have lost their villages and property because of their support for the opposition, aid agencies and diplomats who have been attacked for "funding" the opposition, civil servants who have been victimised, and many other victims of the violence raging in Zimbabwe.

My thoughts also went to the 36 black opposition supporters murdered in the run-up to the general election in June last year and to the nine white farmers murdered in ongoing violence on the commercial farms. All the ruling party thugs responsible for these murders are roaming the streets of Zimbabwe scot free.

Throughout the 75-mile journey from Harare, I realised that everything I had written about my beloved country over the past 12 months had been about doom and gloom.

Now, as I descended into Chinhoyi for the second time in two days, I felt saddened that I was on my umpteenth mission to record another sad chapter ­ the arrest of the 23 white farmers after what was clearly racially motivated violence.

On a nearby farm, I tracked down an elderly white woman who had been attacked in a supermarket on Tuesday. The 72-year-old woman lives on the farm with her son but had seemed oblivious to the political tensions in the town until she became a victim herself of the ruling party thugs who went on the rampage, beating any white person they came across in Chinhoyi, after the farmers' arrest.

"I don't think she will speak to you after what happened to her. She has not come to terms with the incident. She is now dead scared to talk to strangers," the guard said.

When I was eventually allowed inside, she pleaded: "Please don't ever use my name or that of my son. They will come after me ... In fact I won't say much. I don't understand how anyone can dare beat a 72-year-old."

She and her niece had been beaten before strangers had come to their rescue and they managed to flee. All white businesses in Chinhoyi had shut shortly afterwards on the advice of the police.

Yesterday I spoke to another white farmer as he prepared to abandon his property. "I can no longer take the risk. I don't think there is still a place for any white person in Zimbabwe. It's now a choice between life and death," said the farmer, who said he was flying to South Africa. He said the mainly white Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) was preparing to evacuate all whites who wanted to leave Chinhoyi and the surrounding farming areas of Karoi, Mhangura and Doma. Last night, a CFU official said at least 30 white families had already fled violence around Chinhoyi. Many more had asked the CFU to help to evacuate them.

All the white farmers interviewed during my visit to Chinhoyi agreed that they were victims of racial violence that was being fanned by Mr Mugabe and his supporters ahead of next year's presidential elections. "We have lived here since independence in 1980 but we have never experienced these problems until Mr Mugabe started scapegoating us for his government's failures," said another farmer. Mr Mugabe blames the whites and Britain for sabotaging the economy.

Blacks in Chinhoyi confirmed that the racial violence in their town was being driven by ruling party stalwarts who believed they could win more black votes for Mugabe by driving the whites off their land and redistributing it among blacks.

"Now for you to be safe here, you just have to pretend that you are a ruling party supporter even if you are not," said Andrew Motsi, a black shoemaker. A local shopkeeper, who did not want to be named, said: "If they give me a piece of land I will take it. But that will not guarantee them my vote."

I asked myself ­ is this the reconciliation and freedom President Mugabe promised to all Zimbabweans when he stood with Prince Charles to witness the bringing down of the Union Jack in 1980? Definitely not. Mr Mugabe's motive is clear ­ to remain in power. In pursuit of that goal, he has brought a once-promising nation to its knees.