Zimbabwe: Intimidation in countryside escalates
By Dzikamayi Chiyausiku in Marondera (Africa Reports: Zimbabwe Elections No 17, 18-Mar-05)
People in Zimbabwe's rural constituencies are living in fear despite President Robert Mugabe's public assurances - particularly to his most important ally, South Africa's president Thabo Mbeki - that there will be no violence or intimidation at the March 31 parliamentary election.
Observers say that with fewer than two weeks to go to polling day, intimidation is growing.
Villagers are being frogmarched to rallies of the ruling ZANU PF party and, as famine intensifies, peasants are being warned they will be denied government-controlled food aid unless they support Mugabe's candidates.
Meanwhile, the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, has been warned by Mugabe's personal stormtroopers - the violent National Youth Militia or Green Bombers - that many parts of the country are "no go" areas for its campaigners.
The situation is well illustrated in Marondera, a small town some 80 kilometres east of the capital, Harare, where Defence Minister Sydney Sekeramayi controversially won by just 63 votes in 2000, despite widespread intimidation and allegations of vote rigging.
Sekeramayi, who runs the feared Central Intelligence Organisation, CIO, and is known as "the cruel one", has declared Marondera and its surrounding area of decaying farms a no-go area for the MDC.
Nevertheless, there is a spirit of defiance, perhaps inspired by Mugabe's confident expectation that he will win the two-thirds majority that will enable him to change the country's constitution.
"We are being warned at ZANU PF rallies that there will be no food aid for us if the MDC wins the election," Norman Mudekunye, who lives about 20 km outside Marondera, told IWPR.
Mudekunye said a unit of the Green Bombers had established a makeshift election camp near his village called Dirihori. "We hear them singing ZANU PF liberation songs," he said. "Sometimes they wake us up and force us to attend their night meetings. They have a register of all villagers and those who don't attend the rallies are in trouble."
He said that while his neighbours were not being beaten this time - unlike in 2000 -- threats were being made. "If you don't take notice, then you don't receive food aid," he said.
People in the Marondera area desperately need food aid. Commercial farms have collapsed, the rains have failed, and the villagers' sparse crops are wilting in the heat. Some have given up hope of harvesting anything before the short winter months set in -- and if they don't, they will be totally dependent on government food aid for the next twelve months.
At the beginning of this month, ZANU PF supporters burned down Marondera's United Methodist Church in a warning to people not to vote for the local MDC candidate Iain Kay.
Kay - a farmer who was forced off his land two years ago - helped to build the church, where his wife Kerry carried out much of her full time work with AIDS orphans. Police have made no arrests in connection with the incident.
When Kay began his election campaign, he initially held meetings in caves in nearby hills to avoid harassment by Sekeramayi's supporters and the police, who were breaking up meetings of more than five opposition supporters.
Kay, one of only five white people contesting seats in the forthcoming election, is a well-known liberal whose late father Jock served as deputy agriculture minister in Mugabe's government in the late Eighties.
While he is confident he has more support than the defence minister, many believe that this may be irrelevant given the levels of intimidation and advance rigging. Marondera is infamous for election violence. In 2000, Kay's MDC predecessor was run out of town and his house burned to the ground. MDC supporters were tortured at local ruling party headquarters.
Kay himself was severely assaulted and left for dead when 60 ZANU PF supporters invaded and occupied his 5,000-acre property near Marondera. A young policeman, Constable Tinashe Chikwenya, who tried to help the farmer, was shot dead by the invaders. The 120 people Kay employed and their 380 dependents were driven from their homes on the farm.
Kay refused to leave the country and, when asked why he and his wife stayed, he said, "We're all Zimbabweans. We're worth fighting for."
Unexpectedly, following Mugabe's slight relaxation of his iron grip, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai was recently able to hold the first ever opposition rally in the town, which was attended by 600 people. Some men wore MDC t-shirts and a 33-year-old woman who identified herself as Mercy wore an MDC headscarf. Many hundreds more people, including ominous men in suits and wearing dark glasses, gazed at the rally from a distance.
"Those people over there remember the beatings of past years," said Mercy, gesturing to the bystanders. "But I am not afraid any more. I have been arrested by the police and raped twice and my children have been beaten to the ground in front of me. They have done their worst and I have survived."
Dzikamayi Chiyausiku is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.