An election victory by Robert Mugabe and his party usually means trouble for opposition supporters in Zimbabwe, especially those living in remote rural areas.
Following results of the July 31 disputed polls that saw Mr. Mugabe and his Zanu PF party shock the opposition with a two-thirds majority, a long-running tradition of post-election violence has returned.
International human rights group Amnesty International raised the first alarm last week, after some villagers, most of them women, were forced to flee their homes in Mashonaland Central Province, following alleged retributive violence from Mugabe supporters.
More and more villagers in rural Mashonaland, along with Zimbabweans in the capital, Harare, have been internally displaced on accusations that they either supported or voted for challenger Morgan Tsvangirai and his opposition MDC party.
Mugabe and his allies accuse the opposition of being “Western puppets,” created to effect an “illegal” change of regime in the landlocked southern African nation, a charge denied by Mr. Tsvangirai.
The MDC said this week that hundreds of its supporters were facing intimidation and torture, while others had been displaced after the polls. Tsvangirai last week launched a court challenge to have the election nullified and a fresh one announced in 90 days,
The allegations of intimidation have been confirmed by Amnesty International and other human rights groups inside and outside the country.
“Women political activists in rural Zimbabwe told Amnesty they had been threatened with violence and forced to flee with their children for refusing to reveal their vote to supporters of Robert Mugabe’s party during harmonized elections,” said Noel Kututwa, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Africa.
The women allegedly resisted instructions from Zanu PF members to feign illiteracy, blindness, or physical injury, which would have allowed someone else to mark the ballots on their behalf. The Zimbabwe Election Commission, the official body, last week said that more than 200,000 civilians had been “assisted” in casting their ballot, implying it was irregular.
At least six women, accompanied by more than a dozen children, said they were forced to leave their homes after facing intimidation from village heads in Mukumbura district, Mashonaland Central Province, soon after the July 31 poll.
Mugabe supporters apparently wanted to ensure these women did not vote for the other parties and tried to compromise the secrecy of the ballot, said the Amnesty official.
The numbers of “assisted” votes were significant in rural areas for reasons that included illiteracy even though Zimbabwe has a literacy rate above 90 percent, the highest level in Africa.
Numerous families in the Mukumbura district are living under threats of violence. Cases of threats are reported in the Mberengwa and the Midlands regions; the latter area is where an MDC political candidate was forced to flee her home with three children last weekend.
Violence and intimidation have been reported even in constituencies where Mugabe won the elections, as the party made sure it “converts” all opposition supporters.
More threats have been reported in the Midlands, where Emmerson Mnangagwa, one of Mugabe’s possible successors, won an election for the first time in three tries.
“MDC officials and perceived supporters of our party are being visited during the night and threatened, being accused of being sellouts,” said Fransisco Masendeke, the MDC’s deputy chair for Midlands South.
That area saw considerable violence in the runup to the presidential election re-run of 2008, when Zanu (PF) terrorized suspected MDC supporters by amputating their hands. This has hardly been forgotten. Victims were asked if they preferred a “long sleeve” – an amputation from the shoulder – or a “short sleeve,” a wrist amputation.
Amnesty had challenged the Zimbabwean police to guarantee the safety of political activists in rural areas following increased reports of politically motivated displacements.
Such calls have failed to solicit a positive response from the Zimbabwe Republic Police, whose commissioner-general, Augustine Chihuri, publicly proclaimed his support for Mugabe and his party. The police are also accused of playing a part in the violence.
Bishop Paul Verryn, who assists more than 2500 Zimbabwean refugees at the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, reported an increased number of new arrivals before and after the vote.
“More and more people are coming here and they say they are running away from violence,” said Mr. Verryn.