The invaders came at 11pm. Fifteen of them–singing, chanting and crashing metal objects together by our windows. “Out, out,” they shouted as they surrounded our farm–they certainly wanted us out. They broke into the house and dragged burning tyres through the front door. They invaded the hallway and occupied the courtyard. The flames leapt into the thatch as they pulled the tyres under it, but it did not catch alight.
This was last Tuesday. I called the police but then the invaders took the phone away. Their leader, who calls himself “Landmine”, was armed with a rifle. They pushed us around and raised sticks and said that we must leave. They beat my tonga drum so hard that the cowhide skin broke.
One of them went up to the children, who had been woken by the din. “Josh, Josh, there’s a man in our room,” said Anna, 4. Joshua, 9, told my wife Laura afterwards that the man was making hyena noises. My other son, Stephen, is 7.
Police arrived and the invaders were ushered out. None was arrested, but “Landmine” did return my phone at the request of the police. When the police left, though, the invaders resumed their attack. They did not break in this time, but they made a lot of noise, circling the house like whooping hyenas and shouting before they left: “We will eat the children.”
By the time the police came back a second time the invaders had given up: returning to the house of my wife’s parents on the other side of the farm. My parents-in-law were evicted by “Landmine” two months ago.
To be caught on the edge of life, isolated, without help and abandoned, is a hard thing. This is how it is living on a farm in Zimbabwe today. Our house, surrounded by wild stretches of swaying savannah grasses, should be a haven of peace. For us, though, looking out and listening, there are things we see and hear that make our hearts beat fast and our minds race. It is like looking out on a tranquil river, the languid stretches of the mighty Zambezi, and somehow being able to see the crocodiles beneath the surface lying in wait for the one who is careless and not alert.
We thought that with the new Government, and Morgan Tsvangirai becoming the Prime Minister, things might get better. Underneath the waters, though, we knew that the great crocodile, Robert Mugabe, was still in control. It is clear to us now that Tsvangirai does not want to harm Mugabe’s “sacred cow”–the eviction of the last of the white men from their farms must continue. Last week Tsvangirai said that there were invasions on only “one or two farms” and that they have been “blown out of proportion”. This is not the truth. Almost every white farmer that has so far survived is either being prosecuted criminally by the State for still being on his farm, or is facing an attack in which invaders take the law into their own hands.
To stay in our home, which we built on the farm from nothing in 1999, is a battle of wits and nerve–a battle that has raged since we completed our house and had our first child. Joshua, born three days before 2000, has known nothing but farm attacks. His first brush with the invaders was when he was four months old. We were driving out to visit another farm, but militia had erected a road block on the driveway. The invaders stopped us and smashed our car windows with axes and rocks. We had to drive for our lives, with Joshua in his carrycot on the back seat.
There was a time, though, when there was peace on the farm. It was a childhood dream of my father-in-law to reintroduce wildlife to the land. When the 1,200-hectare Mount Carmel farm, which has a river flowing though the middle, came up for sale he sold everything, took out a loan and bought it to create a safari enterprise. Over many years of hard farm work his dream gradually became reality. He introduced nine species of antelope and even had 45 giraffe by the time Joshua was born. The animals did well and my parents-in-law built a safari lodge set by the Biri River.
It was a happy place then, without fear stalking the veldt. Laura, my wife, grew up among all that. The bush war made things difficult for a time in the late 1970s, but it was never as it is now. Today, of the several hundred antelope that were here, not one remains. They have all been killed and the safari lodge has been burnt down.
The battle now is relentless, wearing and it drains all our innermost reserves. It is also an unusual battle–where else in the world does a government declare war on its own people? Where else does the State aim to destroy the economic base of the country so that people will be poorer and therefore more easily controlled? Where else do police connive with criminals to destroy agricultural production–leaving the people starving and totally dependant on the ruling party? Those who have not lived through a time of terror at the hands of a dictatorial government will never understand what it is like.
We have 500 people living and depending on the farm but none of the 150 workers has been allowed to work since April 4. They are chased away with guns by the invaders whenever they try.
Ninety per cent of our farming community has left or is packing at the moment. Tsvangirai’s appointment has hastened our demise. There is a rush to clear the farms of the last white people so that Mugabe can put his men on to the land to control and terrorise the people when the next election comes. Nobody can farm in the midst of this controlled anarchy. That is why we are now the most food-aid dependent country in the world.
Last year the Southern African Development Community Tribunal, a new human rights court set up in Namibia , told the Zimbabwe Government that it must “protect the possession, occupation and ownership of the lands of the applicants”. This is simply not happening. We are going back to the tribunal on Friday. It is important that we show how its judgment has been flouted. But of course the Government will not listen. In the last month the High Court of Zimbabwe has twice ruled in our favour, but it makes no difference. It ordered Nathan Shamuyarira, the octogenarian Zanu (PF) party spokesman and stalwart, who has been “given” our farm, to “vacate the property”. Police were directed to assist in ensuring that the order was complied with. But, six weeks later, the invaders are still here.
We can run away of course. Most people have. If self-preservation is the goal then there is no sense in staying. For us, though, there is a greater good. It is a matter of principle. If individual men and women allow evil to advance unchecked, it will prevail and more people will suffer and starve. It is hard to live and try to make a difference in a time of terror–especially with a family. My wife has been amazing. It is only our faith in God and his provision that sustains us.
Tuesday was not Landmine’s first visit. When he came last month and broke in to the house of my elderly parents-in-law, Mike and Angela Campbell, during the night, shouting that they must leave, our workers were beaten. One was put in the fire and his trousers caught alight before he wriggled out. They then beat him with sticks and metal pipes all over his body. They dumped him, his skull fractured, at the local Chegutu police station. After that it was easy for the invaders. My in-laws are still trying to recover from a savage beating and abduction on the farm nearly a year ago. Then, between the three of us, we suffered 13 broken bones. My skull was also fractured.
At the age of 38 I recovered well, but Mike, 75, who sustained the worst beating, is taking a long time to mend. Our crime was to try to get the whistle blown in the SADC Tribunal. With guns to our heads, they made Angela sign a paper saying that we would withdraw from the court, but we never did.
After Mike and Angela were forced to leave, Shamuyarira’s men were able to have the run of the place. For more than a month we have not been able to retrieve any of their possessions from the house. Two weeks ago the invaders drove a red government tractor into the fenced area around our house and started ploughing up our beautiful garden and driveway so that we could not get out. They screamed abuse and threatened to burn down our home, lighting sacks under the thatched roof before weaving off down our access road and ploughing that into a quagmire too. They then went to the workers and pushed down the door to the home of the foreman, Peter. He has been working for my father-in-law for 31 years. They took him from his bedroom and started beating him and then continued hitting him with sticks on the soles of his feet through the night. We could hear the singing and the raw screams of the beating through the night air, but there was nothing we could do. Nobody knew where Peter was until the next morning when he was dumped at the police station. There were no arrests.
It is harvest time in Zimbabwe. That is one of the reasons that Shamuyarira’s men have come now. This is the largest mango farm in Zimbabwe. There were 50 tons of mangos in the pack shed and cold rooms and another 120 tons still hanging on the trees two months ago. They have stolen all of them and are now starting on the oranges. After that it will be the maize and the sunflowers–and nobody is willing to stop them.
Where else in the world do the Government sanction people to reap what they did not sow, and get away with it? Where else do people come to take homes and occupy them? Where else do people get beaten and left at police stations and their attackers drive off with impunity?
Nobody is putting in a wheat crop this year. The wheat seed sits in the warehouses and in the shops. And so there will be no bread.
When the invaders are not here there is an eerie unease. The workers’ houses are quiet and deserted–their occupants in hiding. When we do see our workers they are furtive–listening, jumpy, ready to move at the slightest threat. Ultimately it must be for them that we stay. We know that if we run they will be chased from their homes and will starve. It is our conviction that God has called us to stay and stand and resist the evil that continues to beset the land.
For now, though, we are reeling, sometimes seeing stars, bewildered in a bewitched land. We are waiting for a future.
Ben Freeth and his wife Laura with their children Anna, Stephen, and Josh pictured with their cat on their farm near Chigutu