Zimbabwean Defiant After Police Beating

Morgan Tsvangirai spent three days in ICU after police beating.
Morgan Tsvangirai spent three days in ICU after police beating. (By Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 17, 2007

HARARE, Zimbabwe, March 16 -- Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai relaxed in the lush garden of his home Friday, a 5-month-old grandson on his knee. But for the five blue stitches on Tsvangirai's head or the bandage covering his broken left hand, there were few clues that he had spent the three previous days in intensive care, or the two before that in prison cells, bloodied and dazed by vicious beatings from police.

In his first hours home, with international outrage still high over Sunday's police crackdown on an opposition rally, Tsvangirai declared himself undaunted.

Despite the arrests and police assaults on nearly 50 top opposition activists, he said, the movement had been strengthened by an experience that has left many wounds but also a new determination to confront President Robert Mugabe's nearly 27-year-old government.

"This incident has just heightened the stakes," said Tsvangirai, 55, a former mineworker and union organizer. "This has created even more impetus and more determination on the part of Zimbabweans."

Political tension has risen sharply in recent months as years of economic troubles have turned increasingly acute, with inflation so high -- the official annual rate is 1,730 percent -- that Zimbabweans say they rush to the store whenever they get cash before prices rise yet again. Fees for schooling, transportation and health care have moved beyond the means of many. The few luxuries of Zimbabwean life, such as milk for tea, have been largely abandoned.

Seven long years of a grinding economic slide have left Zimbabweans embittered and volatile, they say. Life has grown so relentlessly, joylessly difficult that Mugabe's ever-rising threats to punish those who demonstrate against him no longer instill fear.

Add to that a suddenly emboldened opposition, and a crisis long growing appears to finally have reached its tipping point, activists say.

"People were waiting for Tsvangirai to lead," said John Sithole, 54, a lean, wily, street-level activist in Tsvangirai's party. "In people's hearts and in people's minds . . . they were simmering, but they were waiting for somebody to trigger."

Fueling the recent spate of protests, including Sunday's opposition political meeting that deteriorated into a rock-throwing confrontation with riot police, are growing legions of frustrated, jobless youths who say their only hope for bettering their lives comes from forcing out Mugabe, the country's leader since 1980.

His recent announcements making clear his desire to run for another term as president have reenergized opposition forces that spent most of last year squabbling with each other. Sunday's assaults have further emboldened activists.

"People at this juncture are now ready to get into battle," said Innocent Kasiyeno, 23, an official with the Students Christian Movement of Zimbabwe. "The amount of fear is now decreasing each and every day."

The next confrontation could come as soon as Saturday, when a funeral is scheduled for a man shot to death by police in rioting Sunday. Tsvangirai plans to attend the service and speak at the graveside.

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