Flashback : Inside Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe terror camps

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As Robert Mugabe’s ‘war veterans’ continue their violent occupation of white-owned farms, and another farmer dies, black workers face a terrifying fate: incarceration inside Hitler Hunzvi’s ‘re-education’ camps, where their political allegiances are put to the test

By Mary Braid

Even Chairman Mao, controller of the masses, master of revolution and counter revolution, would be impressed with the cunning that has emptied the farms near the small rural town of Concession, an hour’s drive north of Harare. Here, at five neighbouring farms, the scene is the same. Behind the arboreal borders, vivid with pink and orange petals in lateautumn bloom, fertile fields, which a day before were filled with workers and tractors, stand eerily silent.

In the compounds set aside by white farmers for their black workers, the shacks and prefab houses are deserted except for old women and tiny children who toddle around wondering where their parents have gone. The little ones have already spent one night alone. The day before, supporters of President Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF party carted off their parents, along with hundreds of their fellow workers, in stolen tractors and lorries to the nearby Gem Farm – where they would undergo a process euphemistically referred to as “re-education”.

Gem Farm’s young white owner, a supporter of the new opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has fled north to Mvurwi. Meanwhile Mugabe’s foot soldiers have transformed his farm into the fourth “re-education” camp to be established in the area to the north and north-east of Harare in the past few days. Mugabe’s “correction” of the rural poor has now begun.

The immediate cause of this mass disappearing act can be traced to events at the end of last month. Then, Chenjerai “Hitler” Hunzvi (the nickname is his own invention), the infamous leader of Zanu’s “war veterans”, reached a so-called deal with white farmers, which promised an end to months of violence if his followers could remain squatting on their farms until a solution to Zimbabwe’s land crisis was found. But Hunzvi was lying. The violence, the beatings and intimidations – aimed mainly at black farmworkers, despite the death at the weekend of a third white farmer – has continued and, if anything, intensified.

The deal simply gave the “war veterans” – in reality, a mix of old soldiers from Mugabe’s liberation war, Zanu supporters and paid young thugs – control over the farms, farmers and hundreds of thousands of workers who had turned to the opposition, rejecting Mugabe and his corrupt one-party state.

At Gem, 500 men, women and children are already assembled. The set-up appears to be part boot-camp, complete with military-style drill. I visited one of the five nearby farms, where I met Peter, a white farm manager, and his wife Elaine (not their real names). They were packing up their things behind an eight-foot spiked fence, the entrance gate chained and padlocked, while a voice on the farmers’ radio network announced that yet another farm had been emptied of workers. “Some of our labourers escaped from Gem during the night and returned asking for money so they could run away,” said Peter. Money was given and the workers had gone, but Zanu thugs were expected to return in the night to punish anyone who failed to attend classes. Peter and Elaine have already met Zanu’s “teachers”. They came to the farm demanding cows, beer and money; though they were polite, their rubber truncheons suggested that their civility might have its limits.

Elaine, a feisty woman of 33, rails first against the economic damage being done to an already crippled Zimbabwe. Pointing to the farm’s long rows of roses, she exclaims: “They should be being cut and packaged for export.” She then turns to Mugabe’s targeting of Zimbabwe’s white population: “I was born in Zimbabwe and I have as much right here as any black,” she says defiantly. But the quiver in her voice betrays her. It is hard, says her husband, to be brave when 40 chanting Zanu supporters come running at you across your compound. The couple have a gun but would have to be desperate before they would use it. They say Mugabe, who is using the land issue to obscure his wider persecution of the opposition, is just waiting for a white farmer to shoot a black.

“We told our workers not to be heroes, but to do exactly what Zanu says,” says Peter. “They can vote with their conscience in the election [promised by Mugabe though no date has been set].” His line is echoed by other farmers, who have retreated from public support of the MDC, either for selfish or pragmatic reasons.

And it’s the same line espoused by two labourers I meet walking towards Peter’s farm. Samuel, 26, has been sent home from Gem to change after helping slaughter one of the cows taken from surrounding farms. Joseph, 21, is walking with him. They confirm there are at least 500 men, women and children at Gem. And more are arriving all the time. Lorries heavy with people can be seen turning off the main road, led by young men clenching their fists in the Zanu salute.

Only a few workers, the two men say, have been beaten “this time”. Given the terror of the past three months, it’s something for which they seem pathetically grateful. But no one can leave Gem without permission and no one knows how long the re-education will last. Hundreds of Zanu supporters are patrolling the camp, armed with sticks and knives.

“We were ordered to sing yesterday from 2pm until deep into the night,” says Samuel. “Then we started again and sang until 6am this morning.” He describes the sleep- and restdeprivation and the boot-camp routine. Everyone was kept awake overnight. “We must jog for hours, then we eat the food stolen from farms just to get the energy to jog again.”

Joseph says that no one spoke to them of land. There were simply orders not to vote MDC. In rural villages all over the country Zanu is warning people that it will know from numbers printed on ballot papers who voted MDC and that those people will be punished later. But despite everything, Joseph will vote for the opposition. When the MDC comes to the farm, Samuel says, he dons its T-shirt, but when Zanu turns up, he changes into their colours. “But you know in your heart what you will do,” he says. “As the British saying goes, ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink’.”

Samuel and Joseph seem to have retained their independence, but the question is: if the re-education camps spread to other parts of the country in the run-up to elections – which, given the continuing violence, can never now be fair and free – how many workers will “turn”?

Forty minutes drive north at Mvurwi, labourers were re-educated two days before the concession camps were opened. Here, more than 1,000 workers were trucked into the huge Forrester tobacco estate in vehicles commandeered from surrounding farms. The were made to sing revolutionary songs, shout slogans and march for hours at a time. The farm entrance was guarded by thuggish young men with whips.

Zanu supporters now call Mvurwi a “liberated” zone. No outsiders were permitted, but one of Forrester’s black assistant managers, who was too scared to give his name says: “The message was that the British want to rule Zimbabwe again and that to vote MDC is to vote for white power.” At the camp, workers were encouraged to turn on each other. “We were told we must beat anyone wearing an MDC T-shirt,” said the assistant manager. Forced recruitment to the mob is something he knows all about. The weekend before, Forrester’s general manager Duncan Hamilton, his girlfriend and another women were trapped in their house by hundreds singing Zanu songs. The black assistant farm manager was among them. Twenty people were beaten with electric cables and rubber truncheons that night. Their fellow workers watched in silence, “scared they would be next”. Lists were produced of alleged MDC members and workers were forced to hand in party T-shirts. But the manager says he will still vote MDC because Mugabe always promises land and never delivers. Besides, he adds, Zimbabwe needs change.

But gardener Johnphane Chisare, 29, is one who believes what he was taught in camp. He stands in ragged green overalls, on the lawn he manicures for his white bosses. Warren, the white senior manager in this section of Forrester, has picked him to talk about the marching and singing at camp. But Johnphane says Zanu also told him that it would “sort out” any white who gave him trouble.

He stuns Warren by saying Zanu has his vote. He has been promised 30 acres of his own by Zanu. “Yes, I believe it,” he says, nodding vigorously. Had not Mugabe himself promised that land grabs without compensation will soon begin? Johnphane is not alone in his conviction. At Forrester the poor have been invading fields and marking plots that they are sure will soon be theirs.

The truth is that Johnphane could not farm 30 acres without training and education. That he stands no chance of getting any is the government’s fault. In 20 years, Mugabe has produced only a handful of black commercial farmers. But it is also true that to be forever in the white farmer’s employ can mean a life-time of humiliation.

When Warren barks Johnphane’s name, he replies “Sir” like a timid army recruit and comes running. When they go out in the truck, Warren sits in the front, while Johnphane jumps in the back with the dogs. There are white farmers whose sense of superiority is so strong that they routinely refer to their workers as “My Afs (Africans)”. So Johnphane clings to a land promise, betrayed in four previous elections. “I want to be independent,” he says. “I need to be free.”

Just how many Johnphanes will Zanu seduce, particularly now that the MDC’s rural political network has been shattered by terror and new laws limiting its campaigning?

Back in Concession, Ian King, a liberal employer still willing to stick his neck out for the MDC, despite death threats, says he believes that the opposition, solid in urban areas, can still win the promised election. Farm workers, he believes, will still vote for it. But the thugs “teaching” the workers, he warns, may prove hard to rein in, whatever the result. That warning came before the latest murder of a white farmer. “You wonder how much control Mugabe or Hunzvi have over this now,” he says. “When you start off a chain of events like this, you cannot possibly know where it will end.”

 NB. This article was originally published by UK Independent on Monday 8 May 2000.We republish in the interest of our valued readers.