Guardian (Manchester), June 18, 2008
The soldiers and ruling party militiamen herded the people of Rusape to an open field at the back of the local sports club and made their point crystal clear.
“Your vote is your bullet,” a soldier told the terrified crowd.
Everyone knew what he meant.
“They are saying we will die if we don’t vote for Robert Mugabe, that there will be war if we don’t vote for Robert Mugabe,” said a wary young woman holding a small child. Mugabe says it too in speeches across the land ahead of next week’s run-off presidential election against the man who beat him in the first round, Morgan Tsvangirai.
But the woman was not waiting around to discuss that. Darkness had fallen in Rusape, a small town in bloodied Manicaland, and she grew alarmed as she realised she might not make it home before the unofficial curfew put in place by the ruling party militia.
Already the Mitsubishi pick-up trucks filled with young men carrying sticks, spears and knives were out on the streets preparing to move door-to-door, beating, and sometimes killing, anyone associated with the opposition.
“They hunt the opposition. They said they ate human liver and drank urine during the war and so they were prepared for war again,” said the young woman.
The militiamen found Farai Gamba, a ward organiser for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), at the weekend and shot him dead. The Rusape chairman of a group of Zimbabwean independent election monitors disappeared on Saturday night and his whereabouts are not known. Many others have been tortured at the local militia base.
The de facto curfew is in place because the ruling Zanu-PF does not want witnesses to the terror that engulfs Zimbabwe at night, and increasingly during the day, as the party seeks to avoid a repeat of three months ago, when Tsvangirai defeated Mugabe, albeit without an outright majority to secure an outright win.
A campaign that began with the tested tactic of beatings has evolved into a full-blown military strategy of abductions and murders of opposition MDC activists and supporters. More than 100 have been killed and 200 have disappeared. Thousands more have been beaten so badly they will bear the scars for life. A number of rapes have also been reported, including of three women who had wooden poles thrust into their vaginas. But it is not clear at this stage if the attacks are a deliberate part of the terror strategy.
Often the corpses are hidden, but occasionally the killers like to display their handiwork as a warning. Chokuse Muphango was murdered in Buhera South last week. His killers put his body on the back of a truck and drove it through town announcing: “We have killed the dog.”
MDC members of parliament, mayors and councillors have been burned out of their homes and terrorised into fleeing. Hundreds of opposition activists are in jail on trumped up charges of inciting violence after being tortured and dumped at police stations.
Tens of thousands of known opposition supporters have been forced from their homes or had their identity cards destroyed so they cannot vote. The government is also laying the ground for extensive rigging by purging the election process of independent officials, such as teachers, and putting state workers and soldiers in their place.
Anyone who might stand in the way is pursued. Independent Zimbabwean groups that monitor the polls, campaign for human rights or assist the injured have been driven underground after their offices were raided and leaders arrested. Foreign aid workers have been banned from rural areas so they cannot witness the violence and intimidation.
Mugabe has said time and again he regards the upcoming vote not as an election but as a continuation of the liberation struggle against western imperialism and its “puppet”, Tsvangirai. “This country shall not again come under the rule and control of the white man, direct or indirect. We are masters of our destiny. Equally, anyone who seeks to undermine our land reform programme, itself the bedrock of our politics from time immemorial, seeks and gets war. On these two interrelated matters we are very clear. We are prepared to go to war,” Mugabe told an election rally at the weekend.
The strategy to fight back with violence was agreed by Mugabe’s security cabinet, the Joint Operations Command, of senior military and party officials shortly after Zanu-PF was shocked to lose the first round of elections.
The campaign targeted provinces such as Manicaland, Mashonaland and the Midlands where support for the ruling party was traditionally strong but swung significantly to the opposition as the economy continued to implode under the weight of hyperinflation, mass unemployment and widespread food shortages.
Zanu-PF realised it had no prospect of reversing the economic decline. Since the first election, inflation has surged to 1.6m% and the Zimbabwe dollar has fallen from Z$50m to the pound to Z$8bn to the pound. A teacher typically earns Z$40bn a month. A litre of cooking oil costs Z$20bn.
So the ruling party is quashing the opposition’s ability to organise on the ground by driving out local MDC activists and then terrorising ordinary voters. The MDC fears that it may be working.
The young woman clutching her child in Rusape certainly got the message. “We are scared. We are not going to vote. We just want to live. Some people are saying they will vote Zanu-PF,” she said.
The MDC’s national election director, Ian Makone, was forced into hiding more than a month ago. He will meet only after dark—”I work at night. I never go out during the day”—and at an empty house.
Since Makone went underground his campaign manager, Ken Nyeve, and security guard, Godfrey Kauzani, have been abducted and murdered along with Better Chokururama, the driver for Makone’s wife, Theresa, who is an opposition MP. “Better’s body was found first. They found the other two four days later. They were stabbed with knives and screwdrivers. Their eyes were gouged out and their faces burned . . . There’s a pattern. They torture you. They make you really, really feel the pain before you die,” said Makone.
“They were looking for me. We hadn’t told anyone where I went in to hiding, not even our staff. Maybe if we had told them they could have survived after telling.”
Chokururama had already spent several weeks in hospital after a severe beating after the first election. “After the election it was clear their strategy was one of retribution. They made up their minds they were giving in to this violence and started to position themselves in key constituencies,” said Makone. “Every day there are things that happen that I say, ‘what the hell are we doing?’ I meet people who say, ‘people are dying, people are suffering, is it worth doing this?’”
In Manicaland, where the vote swung substantially away from Zanu-PF to deliver an MDC victory, the strategy is overseen by the air force chief, Perence Shiri, who strikes terror into the population as the man who led the Fifth Brigade as it killed about 20,000 people during the Matabeleland massacres in the 1980s.
Among those who have fled rural areas of the province to the main town of Mutare are five MDC members of parliament who dare not move around their constituencies or even sleep in their homes. They include Lynette Karenyi, the MP for Chimanimani West. “They have put Zanu-PF bases in each and every ward of my constituencies where they are taking people and beating them,” she said.
Karenyi said the pro-Mugabe rallies in her constituency are being led by Shiri and the Matabeleland governor, Tinaye Chigudu. “Shiri and Chigudu held a meeting where they ordered people to beat MDC supporters. Afterwards the mob went to beat people and loot houses,” she said. “They also told the voters to say they don’t know how to read and write when they vote and they need help to vote for Robert Mugabe. People are now afraid that if they don’t ask for help Zanu-PF will know they voted for the opposition.”
Another of the opposition MPs who fled to Mutare is Prosper Mutseyami. “They came to my rural home looking for me in the middle of the night three times,” he said. “They’re picking off all my party workers. There’s 28 in police custody charged with inciting violence. They include the ward chairperson, three councillors, the organising secretary.” He said they were targeting election agents so polling stations would not be monitored and to discourage political activity.
“I’m being denied permission to hold rallies on the grounds that there’s no police manpower. The funny part is Zanu-PF are holding rallies daily in my constituency.”
Mutseyami says the forced Zanu-PF meetings are often led by a Major General Bandama. “He threatens people. They say the last time you voted you voted wrongly. If you don’t vote Robert Mugabe we will bring a war,” he said.
An MDC district organiser in Makoni, who did not wish to be named, said that militiamen beat her children to force her to unlock her bedroom door during a late-night raid on her home. The activist, clearly still shocked by the ordeal, said she was forced into a vehicle, ordered to strip and repeatedly assaulted over the following hours. “They beat me and shouted: You are a bitch. They left me at a police station. They took a bullet and threw it at me. They said: kiss that bullet. They meant I was going to die,” she said. The police threw the woman into a cell after charging her with public violence.
Zanu-PF has also targeted human rights lawyers, forcing them in to hiding or exile. Chris Ndlovu has defied the threats to represent opposition supporters hauled before the courts in Mutare. “The numbers are staggering. In some small places there are more than 100 people in prison. They are even arresting schoolchildren under 14. I have one case of a man of 94 years accused of public violence. In 16 years as a lawyer I have never witnessed this. It’s unprecedented,” he said.
“We have the military in rural areas and they target MDC supporters. They abduct them at night and take them to their bases where they claim to be ‘reorienting’ them but where they are just torturing people. When they are done they dump them at the police station where the police have no choice but to find an excuse to charge them. So the victim is accused of being the perpetrator of the violence.”
The militia has made a particular point of targeting teachers, who have traditionally acted as neutral election officials. Some schools have been left so denuded of staff they now barely function.
Felistance Sithole lives in Rusape but dares not return to teach at a school in nearby Makoni South after she was threatened because she was a polling officer in the first election. “I won’t do it again. I’m afraid. Most of us are afraid,” she said.
That is what Zanu-PF intended. In place of teachers and other unreliable elements, next week’s election will be overseen by party functionaries, soldiers and civil servants who owe their jobs to Zanu-PF.
Makone says the violence will have an impact. “We’re going to lose some of the rural votes. My estimate is we can afford to lose 200,000 votes in rural areas but we need to make it up in urban votes. We are going door to door in urban areas and begging for votes. We are holding secret meetings at night in people’s houses, telling people this is their chance.”
Makone calculates that at least half a million potential MDC supporters did not vote in Zimbabwe’s two main cities, Harare and Bulawayo, in the first round of elections and that they could tip the balance firmly in Tsvangirai’s favour.
Zanu-PF seems to have recognised the same thing and is now targeting Harare’s townships. In recent days, the ruling party’s militia has hit Epworth, a township on Harare’s eastern flank where Zanu-PF has established five bases and what is euphemistically called an “information centre” where MDC supporters are persuaded to see the error of their ways.
In Hatfield township, the militia burned down an MDC councillor’s house. He wasn’t at home. His wife and seven-year-old son died in the fire.