MUTARE, Zimbabwe -- Activists from Zimbabwe's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, were returning from a campaign rally recently when they stopped at a shopping center in search of some cold drinks. What they found instead, they said, were about 20 government soldiers in no mood for the niceties of democracy.
One soldier, spotting the party's distinctive red-and-white T-shirts, announced, "This is a no-go area for MDC." According to the activists, who later described the encounter, the soldier added brusquely, "We've been tolerating you for a long time. Get into your car as quickly as you can and leave this place."
Pishai Muchauraya, an opposition candidate for parliament, was among a group of activists attacked by soldiers.
(Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)
Then, as the activists started to pull away in their pickup truck, the soldiers began hurling stones. One candidate for parliament, Gabriel Chiwara, 39, stumbled as he tried to climb into the front seat. Chiwara, an electrician, said the soldiers tackled him to the ground and kicked him for several minutes with their boots. As he begged for mercy, he said, the soldiers shouted: "You have to die! You are selling the country to the whites!"
As Zimbabwe approaches elections March 31, encountering "no-go areas" and official hostility has become a common experience for members of the opposition party. Despite promises from President Robert Mugabe to make certain the polling is "free and fair," opposition candidates said almost any form of campaigning puts them at risk of arrest, harassment and beatings.
The Feb. 20 attack at the shopping center, about 50 miles from this northeastern city, was one of several reported since Mugabe, who is struggling to keep his party's edge in parliament after nearly 25 years of unbroken rule, publicly vowed that the coming elections would be free of violence.
The account of the attack was based on interviews with party activists who were present. Because of government threats to jail foreign correspondents working in Zimbabwe, it was not possible to confirm the story with officials, but it resembles numerous reports of beatings of opposition activists compiled by journalists and human rights groups in recent years.
Mugabe has worked in recent months to convince international leaders, especially from friendly African governments, that this vote will be different from those in 2000 and 2002, when elections were condemned by international groups as unfairly slanted toward the ruling party. He has instituted several reforms, including the use of translucent voting boxes and one-day voting.
South African President Thabo Mbeki, the region's diplomatic leader, has often defended Mugabe. He recently criticized U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for calling Zimbabwe one of the world's "outposts of tyranny."
Yet opposition leaders in this nation of 13 million said almost every form of campaigning either has been restricted or is dangerous. They also said they have scant access to mass media because the government controls all radio stations, television broadcasting and daily newspapers.
Perhaps most important, they said, voters have become discouraged and frightened by the rough tactics of Mugabe's party.
It is often not clear whether the attacks have been orchestrated by Mugabe's party or merely inspired by his vitriolic rhetoric. Mugabe regularly accuses opponents of being traitors seeking to return Zimbabwe to the control of Britain, the colonial ruler here until 1980.
"The terrain is very tough, and we think it is getting harsher and harsher," said Pishai Muchauraya, 31, one of the opposition candidates who were attacked. His mother, he said, has been denied government food handouts because of his affiliation.
In recent weeks, opposition party activists have reportedly been arrested for putting up campaign posters. One youth leader was arrested for criticizing Mugabe. Party planning meetings have been raided by police. And entire sections of the country -- mainly the rural areas where Mugabe's crude calls to patriotism find the greatest support -- have been deemed too dangerous for campaigning.
Even in the cities, where opposition support runs strong, candidates cannot hold rallies, hand out pamphlets or knock on doors without obtaining prior approval from police, who have wide latitude to approve or deny such requests. When the police do approve an event, a list of conditions is issued, including a prohibition on using "language likely to undermine the authority of the President of Zimbabwe."