Military helicopters circled over Harare's skies and ruling-party militiamen flooded into the city, taking up positions alongside soldiers and paramilitary police.
Army trucks and four-wheel-drives patrolled the streets, dispersing even the smallest groups, while packs of armed ruling Zanu-PF enforcers wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with the words "No to mass action" roamed the city.
Yesterday had been billed as the climax of a week of opposition strikes and protests aimed at ending the rule of the President, Robert Mugabe. The general strike succeeded in shutting down Zimbabwe's already collapsing economy. At least two protesters were killed and hundreds wounded.
Faced yesterday with the unmistakable signs of a peaceful revolution in the making, the 79-year-old President tried to crush it by deploying the biggest police, military and paramilitary operation since independence in 1980.
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) had called on Zimbabweans to gather "in their millions" at designated centres around the country and to march peacefully. Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC leader, was arrested for the second time in a week and charged with treason.
And, in an unprecedented act of repression, Mr Mugabe deployed more than 2,000 armed ruling-party henchmen around the capital to intimidate opponents and quash the risk of a "Yugoslavia-style" overthrow. The young thugs, known as "green bombers", are notorious. Trained in military-style camps run by the ruling party, they are accused of some of the most heinous human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. Scores of opponents of the regime have been raped and tortured at their camps.
The presence of the militias in the streets of the capital yesterday helped to keep most protesters at home. But the scale of the security operation also exposed Mr Mugabe as a tyrant who is now clinging to power by force. His land reform policies are blamed for severe food shortages, inflation of nearly 300 per cent, more than 70 per cent unemployment and violence that has led to the deaths of hundreds of people in the past few years.
The extraordinary scenes in the capital were an indication for many, in Zimbabwe and other African capitals where Mr Mugabe has enjoyed support, that the end-game has begun for his regime.
The treason charge against Mr Tsvangirai carries a mandatory death penalty. Wayne Bvudzijena, police spokesman, said the security forces had "no option" but to charge him because of his "continued defiance of the law and his determination to cause chaos".
He added: "He has called for protests to overthrow President Mugabe in defiance of the law. We have to maintain law and order."
But the charge reflected Mr Mugabe's determination to end the political career of a rival who this week demonstrated his power to mobilise enough support to shut down the economy. Mr Tsvangirai is already on trial on separate treason charges connected to an alleged plot to kill the President. He has vehemently denied these charges but it is now considered hard for him to win all the cases he is facing.
Mr Tsvangirai was still in custody last night, and the regime seems determined to prevent him from fanning the flames of mass anger against Mr Mugabe's rule. Mr Bvudzijena said the police would only release Mr Tsvangirai "after finishing our investigations". Lovemore Madhuku, professor of law at the University of Zimbabwe, said: "The logic seems to be, 'If we don't get him on one treason charge, we will definitely get him on another.'"
Although the President relied on his feared security apparatus including rifle butts, volleys of live fire, tear gas and water cannon to prevent people from massing in the streets, he must now come to terms with the message sent by the many people who for five days defied his orders to go to work. This was a clear victory for the opposition, which had told people to stay at home if they were prevented from marching. State media bulletins urging the people to report for duty, and an assortment of threats against those who opted to stay at home, fell on deaf ears.
Even Mr Mugabe's supporters admit he cannot rely on his army and youth militias indefinitely and that in the face of sustained civil disobedience, he may have to opt for a dignified exit strategy.
Charles Muchagonei, an activist, was beaten by militias as he tried to get to a venue for the marches yesterday. "Who said hell is somewhere out there in the universe? It is right here in Zimbabwe" he said.
Hundreds of opposition supporters were arrested. "We have managed to bring calm and we will keep on arresting those who commit offences," the police spokesman said.
Mr Tsvangirai was first arrested on Monday for defying a court order to call off the protests. Before his rearrest he vowed the mass action would continue.
"Through peaceful mass action, the people of Zimbabwe delivered a mortal blow to the dictator.From now onwards we will embark on rolling mass action at strategic times of our choice and without any warning," he said.
"More action is certainly on the way."
FIVE DAYS THAT SHOOK ZIMBABWE
Monday 2 June
Centre of Harare shut down by strike. Police fire shots to disperse crowds marking start of week of "mass action" demanding an end to Robert Mugabe's rule. Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, arrested and charged with contempt of court. Six opposition MPs arrested. Three students feared dead.
Tuesday 3 June
Violence in Harare worsens as security forces brutally assault protesters. Across the country riot police use tear gas and soldiers in armoured cars fire guns to disperse demonstrators. Two hundred people try to march on Bulawayo but are forced to flee.
Wednesday 4 June
Schools and universities closed. Most businesses remain shut. Policemen raid a hospital and take away people they had beaten earlier. The MDC reports the first death of a supporter, Tichaona Kaguru, after being tortured by the army.
Thursday 5 June
Businesses remain shut despite Mr Mugabe's threats. He calls an emergency meeting of his Zanu-PF's decision-making politburo. It vows to "teach Tsvangirai and his MDC a lesson". The MDC calls on Zimbabweans to assemble "in their millions" at designated centres on the final day of the march.
Friday 6 June
Mr Tsvangirai arrested and charged with treason as riot police, soldiers and ruling-party militants flood Harare to foil climax of protest. Troops deployed across the country. Mr Tsvangirai promises more protests.Reuse content