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'They locked the door and set our house on fire'

Her face grotesquely swollen and covered in burn blisters, her lips puffed into a stiff, charred doughnut shape, Farai Mutenengigwa sits in a rural Zimbabwe hospital wondering where she will find the money needed for medicine for her disfigured face and how she will survive the reign of terror ruling party thugs are methodically meting out on Zimbabwe's humblest employees, its commercial farm workers.

With stiff fingers, she gently slid sections of orange through lips so damaged they barely moved when she spoke. Her left arm was badly burned and swathed in bandages. Despite medical attention, her burned and battered face, now permanently disfigured, has swollen significantly since it was flashed around the world last week. A Reuters photographer saw her by chance and took the picture as the owner of the farm where she works drove her to hospital.

"They came about 10pm when we were sleeping," she said. "They knocked on the door but it took us some time to answer. My husband had been drinking that night. They had locked the door from the outside and took some straw and set our house on fire." Her husband had two fingers chopped off that night. He too suffered serious burn injuries and was badly beaten.

"They said we were MDC," she said, referring to the fast-rising Movement for Democratic Change, whose workers and supporters have been the object of an intensifying campaign of terror that is frightening blacks and whites out of being seen with journalists.

Although she was discharged from hospital, she had no idea how to contact her boss and no money to pay for medicine. When I offered to help, she declined, explaining that she was too afraid someone would see her take the money and inform the ruling ZANU-PF party that she associated with a white man.

As the violence has escalated, Zimbabwe has revived a chilling variety of Orwellian political euphemisms. Veterans speak of political re-education drives among workers on the country's remote farms.

"We are talking political re-education by means of skull-bashing," said Guy Watson-Smith, regional head of the Commercial Farmers' Union in Mashonaland, in the East province.

Across Zimbabwe, farmers and MDC workers report gangs of ruling party supporters going each night to "re-educate" farm workers, who they suspect back MDC. The drive is even being extended to the white landowners according to some reports.

As happened to Mutenengigwa, squads of party thugs invade late at night targeting first the farm foremen and most senior workers. Often their houses are burned or they are beaten by young men while other victims are forced to watch.

"Every night I hear the screams of my workers, but there is nothing I can do for them," said one farmer in Wedza, a farm district about 120 kilometres south-east of Harare. Like his workers, he is too afraid to give his name.

Some have dubbed these violent activities, meted out by the veterans, the "Red Guard treatment".

Workers are beaten until they surrender MDC party cards or T-shirts. Many workers are beaten and forced into the gangs that move to other farms to beat still more workers. Others are beaten and then told to inform on MDC supporters.

"Red guard tactics - it's the communist terrorism system," said David, a farmer living near Marondera. "If ZANU-PF win, I think you'll see a mass exodus of whites from this country. I certainly will go."