Nuns in front line of Mugabe campaign to drive the last whites from Zimbabwe

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The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo has condemned an invasion of a white-owned farm led by two nuns, amid a fresh upsurge of violence against Zimbabwe's white farmers. At least 13 properties have been invaded in the past fortnight and several farmers have suffered beatings.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo has condemned an invasion of a white-owned farm led by two nuns, amid a fresh upsurge of violence against Zimbabwe's white farmers. At least 13 properties have been invaded in the past fortnight and several farmers have suffered beatings.

Arthur and Ansy Swales, who grow maize in the Banket district, 60 miles north of Harare, said they had first been approached in 2002 by nuns from the Little Children of the Blessed Lady order, led by Sister Helen Maminimini and Sister Notvurgo, about using some land to grow vegetables. The couple donated around 90 acres and helped the sisters prepare it, but said the nuns grew increasingly aggressive, demanding expensive equipment and more and more land.

Then last month the nuns gave the Swales 24 hours to leave the farm. The couple refused. Eleven days later a group of youths from President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party arrived at midnight. "They went and woke up all the workers, and made them run and sing government songs," said Mrs Swales. "They forced the guards to open the barn gates so they could get to the equipment. We called the police, but they didn't arrive for 14 hours."

When they finally did, they said that the occupation was illegal and that the youths must go. Most have now left, but a group of about six to eight remain, squatting in some empty workers' houses, said Mrs Swales. "They tell us we can't move anything without their permission. We put all our capital into buying this machinery."

Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo condemned the nuns' actions, saying: "It definitely was not with the blessing of the Church ... If a nun, a priest or even a bishop steals, it's definitely wrong, because it's against God's law."

But the ruling Zanu-PF is being accused of launching a campaign in the rural areas to drive all whites out of Zimbabwe by the end of the year.

More than 3,000 white farmers have been driven off the land since Mr Mugabe's policy of redistribution by force began four years ago, and the Commercial Farmers' Union estimates only 300 of the remaining 600 farmers are active.

Two weeks ago Anthony Bodington, a farm manager, and three black game wardens were abducted during an anti-poaching patrol in the Save Valley Conservancy, a wildlife sanctuary 300 miles south of Harare. They told police a group of 50 "war veterans" systematically tortured them for 13 hours. "As the attackers tired, others would come to take their place," Mr Bodington said.

Two of the wardens suffered fractured arms and a third had a broken collarbone. As the only white, Mr Bodington was singled out for vicious treatment. His elbows were fractured and punctured to prevent him raising his hands to protect his face, and doctors fear he may be permanently disabled.

The latest victim of the renewed violence is a British grandmother, Pat Campbell, 62, who was beaten by a "security guard" wielding a stick and an AK47 rifle last week when she attempted to feed her cattle on her farm, 90 miles north of Harare. The farm has been allocated by the government to Lieutenant General Phillip Sibanda, commander of the Zimbabwe National Army and a former UN peacekeeper.

"We heard [the guard] attacking our employees in the barn, and my son ran to stop him, shouting 'Run, run,' to his workers," Mrs Campbell said. "I ran to open the gate so our truck could drive through, and he began to beat me with the stick, threatening to kill me." She believes only the action of her son, who drove over to her and then rammed the gates until they burst, saved her from serious injury or death. Mrs Campbell said the "security guard" had three times threatened to shoot her, but his employer refused to take any action.

"Where can I go?" she asked. "I was born in Scotland, but this is my home. My husband, a son and my grandson are buried here; I have 200 cattle on the farm, and workers who depend on me."

Michael Clark, regional head of the CFU, believes the increase in violence against his members, after a period of relative calm, could be linked to forthcoming elections. "This was very methodical, calculated cruelty," he said. "We know there are camps where the Green Bombers [soldiers notorious for their brutality] and the youth brigades are trained in torture, but these assailants were not part of any formal organisation."

The farm seizures have crippled food production in Zimbabwe, leaving 5.5 million people dependent on food aid last year. Last week the Famine Early Warning System Network, a US-funded agency, predicted conditions would be even worse this year, calling the situation an "emergency". But Mr Mugabe recently told a television interviewer that there were other countries that needed food aid more than Zimbabwe.

"We are not hungry. It should go to hungrier people, hungrier countries than ourselves," he said. "Why foist this food upon us? We don't want to be choked."

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