June 18, 2008
Mugabe's "Do or Die" Campaign to Stay in Power
BY A FRONTLINE/World Correspondent
Farm workers survey the charred remains of their homes on Muniya Farm. Evictions and destruction of property began on April 15, 2008, after the area had voted overwhelmingly for the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change.
Mrs. Plaxeded Mutariswa Ndira was getting her children ready for school a few weeks ago when she heard a scuffle in the bedroom where her husband was still sleeping.
"Some men ordered him out of bed," she says. "He refused, saying he wanted their IDs. He was grabbed naked and shoved into a vehicle that speeded off. My husband was screaming and wrestling."
Mrs. Ndira heard nothing for weeks. She tried to report her husband's kidnapping to the police, but they turned her away. Two weeks later she received a call that her husband's body had been found.
"His tongue was cut off, his left eye gouged out, his body was severely bruised," she says between sobs. "Who will look after his children?"
Two weeks later she received a call that her husband's body had been found. "His tongue was cut off, his left eye gouged out, his body was severely bruised," she says between sobs.
Mrs. Ndira's husband, Tonderai, was an activist with the anti-Mugabe opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC. He had been organizing party meetings and working as a driver for the national chapter's vice president. Before his abduction, Tonderai had been arrested 35 times for various charges ranging from "disturbing the peace"and "causing hatred to the president" to "organizing meetings without police clearance." He was in and out of jail but had never been convicted.
The Ndiras' story was just the first in a wave of accounts I heard on a recent investigative trip around the country.
I decided to embark on this journey after hearing numerous reports of President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party targeting opposition members in retribution for voting against him in the March 29 election.
A violent campaign has been unleashed on the public since Mugabe lost majority control of Parliament in the first round of voting. Rural areas have been especially hard hit. The army, police and armed youth militias have been on the warpath, punishing rural voters for their loss. They call it Operation Mavhotera papi. Simply translated, "Operation Where Did You Put Your X?"
Mugabe now faces his greatest threat after 28 years in power. He garnered only 43.2 percent of the vote against Morgan Tsvangirai's 47.9 percent. However, Zimbabwe law states that to be declared the president, a candidate must have at least 50 percent of the vote. Since neither candidate received more than 50 percent, a run-off between the two candidates will be held June 27.
The 84-year-old Mugabe has vowed to use any means necessary to stay in power. His party has embarked on a "re-education" campaign targeted especially at the remote areas of the country. These rural provinces are the most crucial areas in the election since 65 percent of Zimbabwe's total population lives in rural areas. Their vote will determine the winner.
Road Blocks and "War Veterans"
I set off for Murehwa in the East. The town was once known for its rich red soil and abundant produce. But ever since Mugabe seized white farms and handed them out to his cronies, not much grows here. Murehwa is a no-go area for journalists and opposition members. A Mugabe party stronghold, this area is synonymous with beatings and torture. I cannot take any notes and must rely solely on memory.
Dressed in a traditional headscarf, I board a crowded bus. It's filled mostly with women and exhausted crying babies. Many of the adults wear manyatera -- open sandals made from old tires for those who cannot afford anything else. A few have no shoes at all.
This man told our reporter that Zanu-PF youth put burning plastic on his back and arms. His home was burned and his animals were doused in diesel and set alight.
I watch the scenery roll by and think of the children on the bus. Schools across swaths of the country are deserted. The teachers and headmasters have fled. They have been targeted by soldiers and militia for supposedly educating rural people about opposition politics and mobilizing them to vote against Mugabe. The Progressive Teachers Union tells me that at least 50 schools in rural areas have no teachers at all since everyone has fled to escape the violence.
Our journey is constantly interrupted by one roadblock after another. We pass through three in a single 30-mile stretch. The roadblocks have been set up to stop any opposition members who might try to campaign or any media who might try to report what's going on here. Mugabe has also banned all NGOs from this area until after the election. The police who stop us say they are looking for weapons. I giggle to myself wondering which one of the old and poor people could possibly have arms.
The third roadblock isn't so funny. We are stopped by the so-called "war veterans," young men in their 20s and 30s who claim to have fought in Zimbabwe's war for independence -- a war that took place largely before they were born.
We are ordered off the bus and stand in the morning cold being "interviewed" about where we are going. When my turn comes, I say I am attending a cousin's funeral in a nearby village. In the end, we are lucky. We are only made to chant slogans and dance to a wartime song Mugabe ndibaba (Mugabe is our father). Two young men refuse to sing. They are dragged into the bushes while the rest of us are ordered back onto the bus. I am uneasy for the rest of the journey, wondering what has become of them.
Two young men refuse to sing [a war song tribute to Mugabe]. They are dragged into the bushes while the rest of us are ordered back onto the bus.
I get off at the last stop. A local man agrees to speak to me but only in the safety of the mountains more than 18 miles from the station. This man says that his friend Better Chokururama, a well-known MDC activist was murdered the last week. He was abducted while going shopping. His body was discovered days later in some bushes. Police have refused to investigate. To add insult, after Choururama died, his grandmother's livestock were burned by youths chanting Zanu-PF slogans.
My informant worries about other MDC members who are still unaccounted for. The local MDC Treasurer Shepard Jani, was abducted last weekend and is still missing.
A chill runs through me. I have a bad feeling. Maybe it is just fear that I could be discovered. I decide to move on.
"Not What We Fought For"
The Howard Mission Hospital is a rare sanctuary in the Chiweshe area northwest of the capital, Harare. This Salvation Army hospital is one of the few clinics in the country that will treat victims of political violence. Government hospitals refuse to treat any such cases.
I decide to take a risk. I explain to the sister-in-charge, Mercy Ruonga*, that I am a journalist and I need to speak to some patients. She lets me into the hospital dorms but does not allow me to take any pictures.
The hospital is overflowing with the injured and tortured. Most patients say they were attacked by youth militias aligned with Zanu PF. The police refuse to record statements and bodies are buried with no postmortems.
In the hospital, Mhike Mhike* lays on his back. His buttocks are a gruesome sight. Beaten and charred, there is hardly any flesh left. He cannot sit upright.
Mhike is a primary school teacher. He tells me war veterans aligned with Zanu-PF visited his school. All the school children and parents were assembled at an open space. His name was called out. He rushed to the makeshift stage thinking he was going to receive some honor for his work in the community. But his expectation soon turned into a nightmare when he was thrown on the ground and accused of being a traitor. He had organized his ward to vote for the opposition.
As he was dragged off to a bush, the self-proclaimed war veterans shouted that he would be an example for others who would try to organize opposition meetings for the election. Mhike says he was beaten with logs and a fire was lit for him. They made him sit on the burning red ashes until he passed out. Then he was left for dead. He regained consciousness in the hospital. Some good Samaritan had picked him up and carried him to safety.
Ambuya Shorai with her 3-year-old grandson, Gilbert, who was injured when Zanu-PF youths set fire to her home at night.
Even children are not spared in the crossfire. In the children's ward, Ambuya Shorai cradles her 3-year-old grandson, Gilbert. She tells me that a petrol bomb was thrown into their house while they slept. She is a well-known MDC activist and party organizer. Her grandson escaped with an injured eye and she suffered minor burns as the grass thatch on their hut caved in from the flames. "All my life's belongings were lost in the fire," she says. "At least my muzukuru (grandchild) did not die. I will still vote next month. This is not what we fought for during the war."
The war she refers to was Zimbabwe's liberation struggle from colonial Britain. After achieving majority black rule, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1980. Robert Mugabe was the first and only president of this new country. He has refused to relinquish power ever since.
Recently, the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, James McGee, visited a similar clinic in the capital of Harare to meet with alleged torture victims. Mugabe castigated the ambassador and threatened to "kick him out" of the country for meddling in internal politics.
By the time I reach the Midlands province, in the heart of Zimbabwe, the accounts from local villagers begin to really affect me. I start to get angry. How could neighbors turn on each other like this?
By the time I reach the Midlands province, in the heart of Zimbabwe, the accounts from local villagers begin to really affect me. How could neighbors turn on each other like this?
I pose as a member of a Roman Catholic church from Harare in order to visit the local hospital. There I meet Thabita Chingaya*, a 42-year-old widow and leader of the local MDC women's league. Thabita is being treated for massive injuries to her vagina, uterus and womb. A discharge constantly oozes from between her legs. Tabitha says that she was coming home from drawing water from the river the week before when she came upon seven young men she knew who happened to be Zanu-PF party members. They blocked her path saying she would learn a lesson for being "Morgan Tsvangirai's prostitute."
She was knocked down by blows to her face and kicked with booted feet. But then suddenly the beatings stopped, she says. One man called "Max," who seemed to be the gang leader, ordered the others to stop. He removed his trousers and raped her. All the others followed suit, taking turns to hold her down. When they were done, Max took a log and began poking her vagina until she bled. She says the other six laughed and left her for dead.
My stomach turns. I feel disgusted. I ask the doctor to excuse me to go to the bathroom. Afterward, I just head to the bus stop. I can't take it anymore.
In Opposition Territory
Days later when I had gathered myself again, I travel to Buhera, the home village of opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai in eastern Zimbabwe. Here people speak openly. They accuse Zanu PF of setting up torture bases in the next village. But they are defiant.
"Even if they kill us and hold 20 more run-offs, we will still vote for Morgan," says one resident, Sekuru Nylon. "What does Mugabe want to do that he has not had the chance to do in 28 years? We are suffering and need change."
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai returned home a few weeks ago after living in self-exile in neighboring Botswana since the violence began. He claimed there was an assassination plot on his life. Police here have banned him from holding rallies -- they say he is free to hold them after the election.
But Tsvangirai seems unbowed. Speaking at the burial of a victim of violence, Tsvangirai said: "They can kill us. They can maim us. But we are going on the 27th of June, our hearts dripping with blood, to vote him out of office."
Obtained by our correspondent, this leaked hand-written document contains names of MDC opposition party activists to be targeted. It was allegedly drawn up in Zimbabwe's Centenary area at a Zanu-PF meeting.
Twice in the past week, Tsvangirai was arrested for trying to hold a political rally. The Independent newspaper reported that he was only released after South African president Thabo Mbeki made a call to Mugabe to secure Tsvangirai's freedom so that the election looks as credible as possible.
But the violence by Zanu-PF continues and is well-coordinated. Minutes from an April 4th politburo meeting chaired by Mugabe were recently leaked to the media and they indict him as the author of the attacks here. Mugabe is quoted as saying that the bloody campaign is a "do or die encounter" and that his party must adopt "warlike, military... strategy" to win "at whatever costs."
Perhaps the current violence will have the intended effect. People may be intimidated and frightened and stay away from the polls altogether. It might also spur people to throw all caution to the wind and vote for change. However, I wonder if the final tally will even matter -- Mugabe has already vowed that Zimbabwe will never be ruled by Tsvangirai.
*Names have been changed to protect identities. The correspondent's name has also been withheld for reasons of safety.
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