Signs of attacks on opposition rise in Zimbabwe
JOHANNESBURG: Evidence of widespread retribution against people who supported Zimbabwe's opposition party in last month's election has begun to stream out despite the government's efforts to restrict press access to the worst of the violence.
As Zimbabweans brace this week for the results of the March 29 presidential election to be released, this growing body of evidence ? in the form of witness accounts, photographs and other documentation, some compiled by an American diplomatic field team ? has raised serious questions about whether a free and fair vote is possible if, as expected, a runoff is scheduled.
A runoff would pit President Robert Mugabe, in power for 28 years, against his challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change. Tsvangirai, who left the country on April 7, has said he fears for his safety if he returns.
The questions have grown to the point that the United Nations' top human rights official, Louise Arbour, publicly expressed worry on Sunday that violence could subvert any effort to resolve Zimbabwe's political crisis.
"The information I have received suggests an emerging pattern of political violence, inflicted mainly, but not exclusively, on rural supporters of the opposition MDC party," she said in a statement from her offices in Geneva.
Jendayi Frazer, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, who has been touring the region, told the BBC in an interview published Sunday that the United Nations Security Council should consider sanctions on Zimbabwe if the post-election violence does not end.
Farmers from Masvingo, Mashonaland East and Manicaland Provinces who worked on behalf of the opposition and were interviewed by telephone in the past week described a pattern of ruling-party gangs visiting under the cover of darkness to beat and evict them.
Villagers from Manicaland said they were roused from sleep around midnight one night this month by young marauders who had come to punish them for voting against Mugabe. They said the gangs pelted them with stones fired from slingshots and dragged some from their homes.
The next day, rather than protecting them, police officers ordered them to empty their small huts of their meager possessions, witnesses said. Then the young thugs returned to the small settlement just north of the city of Mutare, bashing down people's homes with iron bars or setting them ablaze.
"There was no chance to say anything; we were fearing for our lives," said Milton, a farm worker who watched from a corn patch as his house went up in flames, and who withheld his last name because he was frightened.
A three-person team from the American Embassy in Harare drove to Manicaland Province on April 19-20 and captured images of the burned and demolished homes in the settlement where Milton lived. The photographs and videos focus on the more than 200 people made homeless in that campaign to terrorize those who voted for the opposition.
"At the time of our visit to the Mutare MDC office, there were 106 children under the age of 12 and 113 adults (many of whom were elderly) camped in the open at the office grounds (sharing one toilet and with running water only for several hours at night)," the team wrote on its return to Harare.
As the wait for the outcome of Zimbabwe's presidential election has dragged on for weeks, postponed in part to accommodate a partial recount of the parliamentary election held the same day, many opposition officials and leaders of civic groups have come to believe the delays were meant to buy time for ZANU-PF, the governing party, to carry out a campaign to intimidate the opposition ahead of a runoff.
There is also evidence that the government is seeking to intimidate aid groups that have the resources to help victims of the violence. One such group reported in a confidential April 16 e-mail message, obtained independently by The New York Times, that senior officials in rural districts had told them to stop distributing food until the presidential race was over or risk being seen as "buying votes" on behalf of Western donors. The group stated in the message that it had suspended food distributions.
On Friday, officials from the group, reached for comment about the message, pleaded not to be identified for fear that the government would bar them from working in the country and maintained that they had restarted food assistance.
Senior officials in Mugabe's party have denied that it has organized attacks on the opposition. The justice minister, Patrick Chinamasa, who lost his own parliamentary seat in the elections, has suggested it is the opposition that has fomented violence, and he challenged those accusing the party to come forward with proof.
The miseries of the people in Mutare ? supported by the accounts of residents and the photographic and video record of their homelessness ? are a microcosm of the violence that human rights groups say is now escalating across areas of the countryside where the opposition made major inroads into Mugabe's strongholds.
The governing party has used the same kinds of violent tactics before. In 2005, Mugabe's government carried out a vast slum clearance effort called Operation Drive Out Trash in the opposition's urban bastions. It displaced 700,000 people, according to United Nations estimates.
Much of the fury now is against country people. Their homes and granaries have been demolished, their goats, chickens and cows slaughtered, their bodies beaten. In the weeks leading to the election, they worked for the opposition in growing numbers as they found themselves pushed ever deeper into destitution by the economy's implosion.
A doctor in Harare who said he had treated more than 200 victims of the violence in recent weeks visited Mashonaland East Province before the vote and watched as rural people campaigned openly, even putting posters on their cows' backs.
"They were enjoying themselves," said the doctor, who spoke anonymously for fear of retribution. "They thought, 'Here is freedom. Here is democracy.' Now these same people are victims. They are targeted."
Tonderai Chakanetsa, a farmer from the Mudzi district of Mashonaland East, was one of those opposition workers. In an interview in Harare with a Zimbabwean journalist working with The New York Times, he described how he, his wife and their five children went into hiding in the forest early this month when they heard militias for the president's party were on the rampage.
But when they ran out of food on April 16, he went home for more provisions. He was attacked as he locked up to leave, struck on the neck with a blunt object. "I remember that suddenly some people started singing ZANU-PF songs and accused me of being a traitor," he said. Interviewed as he lay in a hospital bed, Chakanetsa had wounds on his face and back and trouble standing because his legs had been hurt. He had also been beaten on the soles of his feet.
He escaped and made his way to the capital, Harare, but still did not know how his family was surviving in the forest. "Based on what I experienced at the hands of ZANU-PF, revenge is uppermost in my mind if I go back home," he said.
According to witness accounts provided to human rights researchers and journalists, organizers of the attacks have included ministers and members of Parliament from the governing party, as well as senior military officials. The accounts say ruling-party youth militias, veterans of the liberation struggle, soldiers and police officers have administered the beatings that are intrinsic to "Operation Where Did You Put Your X?" ? a campaign against those who marked ballots for the opposition.
Some of the farmers interviewed in recent days said their attackers had demanded lists of opposition party members in their areas, including Daniel Muchuchuti, a farmer and opposition worker in a rural part of Masvingo Province. He said they broke into his house on April 8 after he and his wife had gone to bed.
"They dragged me outside and started kicking me and my wife," he said. Two of his front teeth were knocked out and three ribs were broken. He fled to Harare for medical care. He is afraid to go home, but said he did not know how his four children would survive without his labor.
The impoverished farm workers who were uprooted north of Mutare said the farm they called home had been invaded in recent years by war veterans linked to Mugabe's party. The veterans drove off the white farmer who owned the farm and who had kept as many as 200 people employed in harvest season, they said.
Now the workers say the farm is unproductive and they are unemployed. Many openly supported the opposition, despite threats from the veterans that they would be evicted unless they voted for ZANU-PF.
Milton and other residents said the police came on April 13 and told them they would have to vacate their homes.
"The owner didn't want us anymore," Milton said the police told them. "We were from the opposition and his enemies."
His children, an 8-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy, cried bitterly at being forced out, he said, and the family watched in sadness as their two-room home with a small veranda went up in smoke.