/ 21 June 2008

‘They make you feel the pain’

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 Mugabe,” said a wary young woman holding a small child.

Darkness was falling and already 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 killing.

”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 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.

The de facto curfew is in place because the ruling Zanu-PF does not want witnesses to the terror that engulfs Zimbabwe.

More than 100 opposition MDC activists and supporters 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 been reported, including those of three women who had wooden poles thrust into their vaginas.

Occasionally the killers like to display their handiwork. 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.”

The strategy to fight back with violence was agreed by Mugabe’s security cabinet, the joint operations command, shortly after Zanu-PF lost the first round of elections.

The campaign has targeted provinces such as Manicaland and Mashonaland where traditionally strong support for the ruling party swung towards the opposition as the economy imploded.

The MDC’s national election director, Ian Makone, was forced into hiding more than a month ago. Since then his campaign manager, Ken Nyeve, and security guard Godfrey Kauzani have been abducted and murdered. So has Better Chokurrurama, the driver for Makone’s wife, 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.”

Chokurrurama had already spent several weeks in hospital recovering from a severe beating after the first election. ”Every day there are things that happen that [make me] 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 led the Fifth Brigade as it killed about 20 000 people during the Matabeleland massacres in the 1980s.

Five MDC MPs have fled rural areas of the province to the main town of Mutare. Lynette Karenyi, the MP for Chimanimani West, said 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.”

An MDC district organiser in the Makoni district, 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. The activist said she was forced into a vehicle, ordered to strip and repeatedly assaulted for hours. ”They took a bullet and threw it at me. They said: ‘Kiss that bullet.’ They meant I was going to die,” she said. Police threw her into a cell after charging her with public violence.

Chris Ndlovu is a lawyer who has defied threats to represent opposition supporters. ”The numbers are staggering. They are even arresting schoolchildren under 14. I have one case of a man of 94 accused of public violence,” he said.

He said the military in rural areas abducts MDC supporters at night and take them to bases for ”reorientation — 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 point of targeting teachers, who traditionally have acted as neutral election officials. 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 is working. ”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 Harare and Bulawayo in the first round of elections. Zanu-PF seems to have recognised the same thing and is now targeting Harare’s townships. Recently the militia established five bases in Epworth outside Harare, as well as an ”information centre” where MDC supporters are persuaded to see the error of their ways.