"The Zimbabwe Situation" news page
NY Times magazine - June 25, 2000

Bloody Harvest

Zimbabwe's white farmers are being held hostage, tormented and killed on their own property. They're caught in the complex politics of land and race and the machinations of a president desperate to win one more election. By PETER GODWIN

A house on the farm of David Stobart, a white Zimbabwean landowner, ransacked this spring by men loyal to President Robert Mugabe.

Martin Olds was attacked one day last April just after dawn. A hundred men, many of them armed with AK-47's, arrived in a convoy and opened fire on his farmhouse from six separate ambush positions. He was shot in the leg but managed to attach a makeshift splint and kept his assailants at bay in a furious gun battle for another three hours. A plea for help was made to the nearby police station, but they refused to assist him. Finally his attackers lobbed Molotov cocktails into the house, and when he stumbled out, overcome by the smoke and the heat, they shot him in the head. Then they beat his body to a pulp.

David Stevens's last words to his wife were, "Don't worry, darling, I'll be safe." Soon thereafter, he was dragged from his farm by 40 armed men who had arrived in a bus. His hands were tied behind his back. Neighbors who came to his aid were shot at and took refuge at the local police station, but the gunmen followed them and hauled them out. All of them were beaten and threatened with execution. One described what happened next: "I saw a man step forward and shoot Dave in the back and then in the face with a shotgun -- he literally blew him away." The body of Stevens's black foreman was found a week later, in late April.

In early May, Alan Dunn answered his back door to five men who immediately knocked him to the ground and pounded him with heavy chains, concrete blocks and metal bars. Hearing his cries, his wife hid their three daughters under the bed. Alan Dunn died the next day in the hospital.

It is hunting season in the African country of my birth, Zimbabwe, and the quarry this year is white farmers and their black workers. Caught in the cross hairs of a deadly political safari are some 4,000 white farmers who, 20 years after the end of white rule, still own more than one-third of the best land in a country of 12.5 million black people. How these farmers came to be in this position is the stuff of classical tragedy, a slowly evolving crisis with clearly marked escape routes that were ignored at every turn.

Peter Godwin is the author of the memoir "Mukewa: A White Boy in Africa."

When I grew up in Zimbabwe in the 1960's, it was still Southern Rhodesia, a British colony. We lived on a farm of sorts, one of a huge series of estates strung out along the Chimanimani Mountains that formed the border with Mozambique. With its bracken-covered hills and its steep, verdant valleys, the land there reminded the first white settlers of their Scottish homeland. That they were not the first on this land did not trouble the white pioneers overmuch. It was only sparsely populated, and the locals -- the Shona and the Ndebele -- were quickly crushed when they tried to rebel. Soon the white farmers settled on the best land, a well-watered plateau free of the dreaded cattle-killing tsetse fly.

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Zimbabwe, from Merriam-Webster's Atlas.

Unrest in Zimbabwe

Related Web Site
Zimbabwe Profile, from the U.S. State Department.

When Britain began to shed hastily its African colonies in the late 1950's, Rhodesia's white rulers gulped with trepidation at the chaos that inevitably seemed to follow independence and demanded that their white rule be preserved. London refused, and the Rhodesian leader, Ian Smith, unilaterally declared independence in 1965. The country became an international pariah. Blacks took up arms against the white minority government soon thereafter in a seven-year war that killed more than 30,000 civilians, mostly black. But there were white fatalities too, especially out on the farms, many of which were transformed into fortresses and came under frequent guerrilla attack. Many of the whites left, and their population dwindled from a high of nearly 300,000 in the mid-60's to just 70,000 today.

Exhausted from war, the country finally embraced peace and held its first democratic election in 1980. It was won by the political wing of one of the two black guerrilla groups, the largely Shona-based Zimbabwe African National Union party of Robert Mugabe, who was hailed as a liberation hero. Freed of United Nations sanctions, Zimbabwe was bolstered by outside investment and aid. The new government espoused a policy of racial reconciliation, and with the most developed economy in black-ruled Africa, it carried the hopes of the continent on its back.

From the start Mugabe pledged to rectify the distorted pattern of land ownership, which had been a major cause of the war. Under the terms of an agreement with Britain, white land would change hands on a voluntary basis, at market prices, and Britain and other countries would put up over $100 million to finance the buyouts of white farmers. More than 8.5million acres of land was bought from white farmers by the government. But Mugabe gave most of this land to his cronies instead of allocating it to landless peasants as stipulated by the donors. So Britain eventually froze its aid, and the land transfers stalled.

The land issue sprang into the headlines again earlier this year when Mugabe suddenly acquired a true opposition after two decades of almost unchallenged power. Ten months ago, the Movement for Democratic Change (M.D.C.) burst onto the political stage, an outgrowth of the trade-union movement. Led by Morgan Tsvangirai, the M.D.C. grew in the upswell of popular dissatisfaction with Mugabe's increasingly despotic behavior and his government's slide into kleptocracy.

A meeting to discuss the closing of a school, one of hundreds forced to shut down amid attacks by ruling-party loyalists.

The figures tell of a crushing economic collapse in the two decades of Mugabe's rule. In 1980 the Zimbabwean dollar was worth $1.58 in American currency. Today it's worth just 2.6 cents. In 1980 Zimbabwe's gross domestic product per capita was $740. Today, G.D.P. per capita is down to an estimated $575. In 1980 inflation was just under 7 percent. Today it's over 60 percent. The overall effect on black living standards has been devastating.

The scope of the Movement's threat became apparent only in February, when Mugabe, now 76, held a referendum in which he asked the electorate to extend his already considerable constitutional powers. And to ensure the desired outcome, he tacked on what he thought would be an irresistible enticement to black voters: the confiscation of white farmland, without compensation. The whites stole the land from us originally, he argued; why should we pay them to get it back?

The Movement campaigned for a "no" vote, opposing Mugabe's effort to aggrandize his position still further, but also arguing that commercial farming was one of the few activities sustaining an ailing economy. More than a quarter of the nation's jobs are provided by commercial farms, which generate 40 percent of the country's export earnings. At a time when much of Africa struggles to feed itself, Zimbabwe has maintained one of the most productive farming networks on the continent. The M.D.C. argued instead for a planned transfer of land, in cooperation with the Commercial Farmers Union, an organization made up of large, predominantly white farm owners, so as not to create chaos in commercial agriculture. In an outcome that astonished everyone, the referendum was resoundingly defeated.

White farms are being occupied by a ragtag, government-sponsored mix of war veterans and young thugs.

Although many groups had campaigned for a "no" vote, Mugabe blamed the Movement for Democratic Change for his referendum defeat, citing support the M.D.C. got from white farmers and their black employees. In an escalating series of race-baiting statements, he denounced white farmers as "nonindigenous," "Britain's Children" and finally "enemies of Zimbabwe." Then he unleashed the so-called war veterans, a ragtag group comprised of remnants of the guerrilla force that had once fought for majority rule and unemployed youths who could not have fought in a war that ended 20 years ago. In the last four months the "war vets," who number a few thousand, have invaded nearly a third -- more than 1,400 -- of white-owned farms. During the takeovers, five farmers have been murdered, four of them associated with the opposition, and dozens of others have been beaten and intimidated. The farm occupations have been carried out with Mugabe's explicit blessing -- we are actually very happy for them to be there," he said recently -- as part of his strategy to win parliamentary elections being held this weekend. Although his presidential term isn't up until 2002, Mugabe's ZANU-PF party needs to win a parliamentary majority in order for him to rule effectively. With the government coffers empty, he can dole out land "gifts" to a rural electorate that makes up 65 percent of voters, some of whom are understandably frustrated at the slow rate of land reform -- even though those delays are mostly the government's own fault.

The government has tried its best to characterize the farm invasions as a spontaneous uprising by a land-hungry peasantry. But in a recent poll carried out by the Helen Suzman Foundation, only 9 percent of black Zimbabweans said that land was their most pressing concern, and 55 percent said they were satisfied with the land ownership as it was before the invasions began.

David Stobart's Atlanta farm, 25 miles northeast of the capital, Harare, was among the first farms to be invaded in March. On my way there, I pass squads of ZANU-PF youth league members in their party T-shirts marching up and down the middle of the road. Eventually, I arrive at a small wooden sign. "War Vets Jurisdiction," it reads. Sitting on the culvert next to it are several middle-age black men in faded blue overalls. Their stern-faced leader strolls over and introduces himself in Shona as Pondai MaBunhu. It means "Kill the Whites" (or literally, "Kill the Boers," a common derogation for all whites).

"That's a pretty frightening name," I say, trying to make light of it, and he cracks a smile.

"We don't hate all white people, just some of them," says Pondai.

"Why are you here?" I ask.

"We want a piece of this farm," says Pondai quietly. "But we are waiting for instructions from the government." And he waves us on, past his little sign, out of his territory.

The farmers prefer to deal with the few genuine vets, like Pondai, who can be reasonable and disciplined. Some of these vets say that farm occupation is the only way to pressure a government that talks big during campaigns but promptly forgets them after elections. It is the young thugs whom the farmers fear most. Drawn from the swollen ranks of the economically disenfranchised, they are high on unaccustomed power and often drunk or drugged up too, making them wildly unpredictable.

Comrade Mavusa's breath is scented with alcohol, and his voice is soon raised in anger. 'If they try to leave,' he instructs his followers, 'chop them with your axes.'

At the turnoff to Atlanta farm there is another wooden sign; this one warns, "War Vets -- No Go Area." But there are no vets around, so we proceed. At the top of the drive we run into Stobart, his sun-cured face peering anxiously out the window of his pickup truck. Behind him many of the workers' houses have been burned down, and his tobacco sheds, with a fresh harvest racked inside them, have been torched, too.

Like many other farms in the first wave of invasions, Atlanta farm had been associated with the opposition. Stobart employs 60 people on about 450 acres of arable land planted with burley tobacco, maize, soybeans, ground nuts and wheat, and which also supports beef cattle and pigs. His workers were enthusiastic supporters of the M.D.C. Many of them, as is often the case with farm workers here, are the descendants of immigrants from neighboring Malawi and Mozambique. Though not well paid, they are considered lucky in a country where most are unemployed. And the white-owned farms are now their only homes.

When the vets first arrived on Atlanta demanding the land, says Stobart, "I told them that if anyone else is to get my land, it would be the farm laborers who work here. And they said, 'No, they can leave, we don't care about them.' My workers heard this conversation and a few days later the aggro between them started. The vets abducted one of my guys, handcuffed his hands behind his knees and took him to the river to drown him." A few weeks later, the workers repulsed the invaders. But over time, the situation grew more tense, and in mid-April, the vets held Stobart's son hostage until he paid them a ransom. They returned later that day and asked a worker: "Where's your boss? We've come to kill him." They marched up the hill looking for him, clubbing to death a farm dog along the way. Later they set fire to the barns, Stobart's son's house and the workers' homes.

"My labor has scattered in all directions into the fields," Stobart says. "A lot of these guys have been with me for over 40 years. They've lost everything, including their ID cards, so none of them can vote. Oliver, our tractor driver, was hurt the worst; he was beaten with clubs and iron bars and barbed wire attached to a stick like a whip. His leg was broken in three places. So was his scapula. One or two others were axed."

Simon Tucker, left, a farmer, and the ''war vet'' known as Comrade Satan. Tucker was forced to sign over his land to Satan after it was occupied by Satan's men.

Stobart, early on, had requested help from the police, but when they arrived, they made no attempt to stop the attack. Zimbabwe's attorney general has explicitly told law officers not to interfere with farm raids, despite court orders outlawing them. Mugabe has said that the farmers should not resist the illegal invasions, warning, "If they resist, they will die." The vets were initially provided with food rations and modest stipends by the government, and senior sources in the ruling party have admitted the army's involvement in providing logistical support for the invasions.

The war vets are led by a Polish-trained doctor, Chenjerai Hunzvi, who still proudly uses the nom de guerre Hitler. (During Zimbabwe's war of independence black guerrillas took such pseudonyms -- the more frightening the better.) But the relationship between Mugabe and Hunzvi seems to be an uneasy one, and there is a growing concern among human rights groups, and even privately among some members of the government, that the vets are above the law and may become impossible to control, even after the elections. In the last few weeks, Mugabe has designated more than 800 farms for immediate confiscation. And Hunzvi has announced that these farms will be occupied on a first-come, first-served basis. Farmers fear that this will trigger general anarchy and destroy productive agriculture.

"It's like a bad dream" says Stobart's wife, sitting on a floral armchair in their cottage later in the day. "I'm a born-and-bred Zimbabwean. My grandfather came here in 1896. We don't want to hog the whole country, but we have a place here. But if our lives are made intolerable we'll have to go."

Like most farmers, Stobart is loath to abandon his farm, fearing that if he does, he will lose it for good. So he commutes daily from a borrowed apartment in Harare. The group of 20 vets permanently based at Atlanta allows Stobart to keep the farm going, as long as he accepts that they are in charge.

Just over the hill from Atlanta farm, in the village of Goromonzi, I witness another part of Mugabe's electoral strategy in action -- the intimidation of the black opposition. Members of the Movement for Democratic Change have taken me to one of their safe houses, where supporters who have fled their homes are congregating. The gate is guarded by boys with sticks and clubs, but they radiate fear, and the house owner, Leonard Mapuranga, a Movement official, tells me that the war vets "are planning to overrun this place day and night." In the garden sit dozens of M.D.C. supporters who are victims of the wave of pre-election violence. Independent human rights monitors believe that ruling-party militants and war vets are responsible for instigating at least 90 percent of incidents of violence and intimidation. By mid-June, more than 30 people (including the 5 white farmers) had died, nearly all of them opposition supporters.

Lovemore Mhembere, a builder, has a swollen face. He eases up his shirt to show me the angry welts across his back. He was kidnapped by ZANU-PF supporters, handcuffed and bundled into a pickup truck that had its plates covered. He was taken to a nearby farm being used for "re-education," where he was hit on the head with a hammer and beaten on the back with sticks. His crime was to be caught wearing an M.D.C. T-shirt. "Then their commander, who was drunk, took out a pistol, loaded it, cocked it and placed the barrel between my eyes," says Mhembere. "He shouted at me, 'You have betrayed the government!' I thought, so this is how I meet my death. I didn't even plead with him, because I was so sure it was over for me." But Mhembere was pulled away from the commander by other war vets and escaped a few days later. And though his case was reported to the police, they did nothing.

Farai is a schoolteacher who would rather not give his surname. Teachers have been a special target of the vets and ZANU-PF youth squads. He was in a staff meeting when his school was attacked by a truckload of vets armed with sticks and machetes. "All the children ran away screaming and we ran, too, and the school has remained closed since," he says. It is one of hundreds of schools closed across the country after systematic intimidation.

"We have had thousands of kidnappings and assaults, but the police take no action," says Mapuranga. "Let's face it: we are living in a lawless state." Amnesty International endorses his view. "There is a deliberate plan," said its Africa director, Maina Kiai. "It started with the farmers, then moved to the farm workers and on to teachers and businessmen and now to the opposition. It is clearly state-sponsored terrorism." The present climate, he concluded, "is not conducive to free and fair elections."

Early the next morning, I leave Harare to make the hundred-mile drive northeast to the district of Centenary. The journey takes me through some of the most productive farmland on the African continent: neatly trammeled fields of maize, well-groomed groves of citrus trees, sheep and beef cattle glowing with good health. Periodic banks of gaudy bougainvillaea mark the houses of the white men to whom most of this land belongs. Bougainvillaea, exotic to Africa, is like the white man's footprint on this continent. From the air you can trace the progress of European settlement by these banks of bright scarlet, mauve and cerise.

I am heading over to Maclear Farm, where the resident war vets are threatening the life of a farmer, Louis Malzer. When I arrive, Malzer is alone at his homestead. He is red-eyed and clench-jawed, furious and upset, humiliated and impotent. Around him, work on his tobacco farm has come to a standstill. Many of his 80 employees have run off.

He tells me of his encounters with the vets. Of how they felled a tree across his drive, cut a hole in his fence and surrounded his house. Of how they lit a fire on his lawn and danced and drummed over two days, chanting "Pasi ne maBunhu!" -- Down with the whites!" Of how the entire farm has been divided up by vets, several times over by competing claimants. Of how yesterday the vets took over his farm cottage, in which his father-in-law lives, giving him two hours to remove his possessions. "And as my son and I tried to drag our belongings out of the house," he recounts, "they kept on brandishing a whip and a carving knife. 'We haven't killed any farmers in this area yet,' they said, 'and we think it's time we started."'

A member of the opposition, who was beaten by Mugabe supporters in pre-election violence.

A negotiating team has come to help Malzer and try to thrash out some sort of settlement with the vets. The negotiators, led by a Catholic priest and including two senior police officers, an agent from the Zimbabwean Central Intelligence Organization and several representatives from the Commercial Farmers Union, try to engage the vet leader, Comrade Mavusa, a rotund man whose stomach strains at the logo of his Zimbabwe War Veterans Association T-shirt. Comrade Mavusa's breath is scented with alcohol, and his voice is soon raised in anger. As the light fades, the men of the delegation explain that they need to go because their helicopter cannot fly after dark, but things have not yet been resolved to Mavusa's satisfaction. "If they try to leave," he instructs his followers, "chop them with your axes."

The policemen look down at their shiny brown shoes. They are embarrassed by Mavusa's belligerence, but they do nothing to challenge it. These vets have clearly been sanctioned from the top.

A week later the Malzers decide to flee their land. "I feel terribly worried about the farm workers, but I don't want to go back," Malzer admits when I meet him in a small apartment in Harare, surrounded by suitcases. "Not after what we've been through. Everything we've got has gone into that farm -- it's my life's work. We've applied to go to Australia. I've only ever been a farmer, but I'll do whatever I have to there -- sweep streets if necessary -- as long as I don't have to put up with this nonsense."

While most white farmers are scared to talk to the media, it is equally difficult to get the vets to talk, and most are simply following orders. One of the few willing to speak to me was Comrade Muroyi (which means wizard in Shona). After a few shared cigarettes and some pleasantries in my rudimentary Shona, he told why he had decided to take the land by force. "I went back to stay with my parents after the liberation war," he explains. "But there I am plowing only two acres to support two wives and nine children."

So why invade the farms now, after 20 years?

"The government kept promising us land but we never got anything. They were not able to give us land before, because of the laws. That's why we have done it for ourselves. It is our spoils of war."

He is joined by his boss, Comrade Satan. "We will live together with the white farmers," Satan explains, showing me on a map the territory he is claiming. "We will take half of each farm and we will plant our crops, just like them. And if we need tractors we will borrow them from the white farmer, and if we have money we will pay for their use."

Despite Satan's words and even as the occupations proceed, a swath of prime white farms is available for sale to the government, land on which resettlement projects could be established. And nearly one million more acres are already in government hands, still waiting for the necessary infrastructure that can convert it from large-scale commercial units into smaller plots. Comrade Satan's justification for the land takeover is belied by a macabre monument that stands at the entrance of the vets' camp. It is a huge grave. At one end there is a cross on which has been scrawled the name of the grave's intended occupant: Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement and Mugabe's chief political rival. At the base of the cross is an M.D.C. T-shirt with its heart burnt out. It seems pretty clear to all of us standing here what the vets' real mission is.

As part of the final stage of Mugabe's campaign strategy, his candidates have been holding a series of rallies on commercial farms. All surrounding farmers are expected to attend and to deliver their workers. The penalty for absence is not explicitly enunciated. At this point in the invasion game, it doesn't have to be. Today's rally takes place on a farm in Centenary; 12,000 people are there. Security for the event is provided by ZANU-PF militiamen, and from time to time they yank someone from the crowd and frog march him away to be "disciplined."

"Not all white commercial farmers are bad," the local candidate tells the farm workers. "Only those who support the M.D.C." To the ululating of mock mourners the party marshals parade a coffin, another for the corpse of Tsvangirai. The coffin is loaded onto the roof of a car while the crowd obediently cheers the demise of Morgan and his party.

No foreign media have been allowed here today, only the cameras of the state-controlled TV. I sit incognito on the little wooden school benches, among the white farmers. There are about 80 of them -- no wives or children -- working hard to keep the scowls off their faces. Finally the local farmers' leader, George Stam, is given the mike. "We are now re-educated," he assures the party officials. "And I'd like to thank all those who have made this possible: the farmers, the workers, the war veterans." It sounds craven, but the other farmers know he is fighting for their survival, playing for time. "It is not in our culture to make statements about whom we support," says Stam. "But I have asked all my farmers to get their ZANU-PF party cards so there can be no mistake about our intention." He ends with a plea to the party for protection from the irrational wiles of the war vets.

"Be warned," says the local governor, eyeing the lines of white farmers perched on the benches. "Your business is farming and not politics." The next day the headline of the government-friendly newspaper, The Herald, reads: "Farmers Pledge Their Support for ZANU-PF." The message is clear: to have any hope of surviving, this community must not exercise its democratic rights, unless it is to vote and campaign for the ruling party. If ZANU-PF does return to power this weekend, the white farmers of Zimbabwe will face an uncertain future. President Mugabe has warned that it is the "totality" of their land in which he is interested, and that any farmers permitted to stay will do so only on the basis "of our own charity."

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