Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 10, 2008
MARONDERA, Zimbabwe, April 9 -- The crimson begins at the collar. Its dried, crusty path shows where blood flowed from the head of opposition candidate Felix Muzambi onto his shoulders, down his front and past every one of his buttons. The white Van Heusen dress shirt now carries the indelible stain of politics, Zimbabwe-style.
The beating at the hands of ruling party youths happened in February, said Muzambi, 64, a taxidermist and grandfather. That was about six weeks before the historic March 29 election that was notable for its relative peacefulness -- compared to votes in previous years -- and for the first-round defeat of President Robert Mugabe and his party.
Heading into a second and decisive round of voting for the presidency, signs abound that the kind of violence visited on Muzambi is spreading across the country as Mugabe resorts to the tools he has used to stay in power for 28 years. This town alone has a notorious history of whippings, abductions and torture. Secret police took pliers to Muzambi's genitals last year, he said, turning away and wincing.
He said the worst is still ahead.
"We're in trouble," said Muzambi, who won a seat on Marondera's council, a humiliating loss for Mugabe's party, which has controlled this town since Zimbabwe's birth in 1980. "Everybody is scared because they know he kills."
Reports of vicious attacks and intimidation have proliferated in Marondera since the vote 11 days ago. An opposition activist was pummeled by ruling party youths and threatened with a knife Tuesday night, several of his friends said. Two other opposition supporters, in a rural area outside town, were whipped so badly they ended up in the hospital, a party official said.
Voting results written on blue pieces of paper outside several polling stations have mysteriously been erased. Some of the few still visible were posted behind the windows of a locked building, the R. G. Mugabe Primary School, revealing the depth of his humiliation here: Tsvangirai 248, Mugabe 79.
At two other polling stations where results had been rubbed away, the faint imprints suggested similar margins of defeat for the president and his party.
Regional diplomatic efforts to resolve the political stalemate accelerated Wednesday with a call by Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa for an emergency meeting of southern African heads of state Saturday. The group, which has publicly defended Mugabe in the past, is widely seen as having more influence over him than Western critics such as Britain and the United States.
Meanwhile, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, which has rarely been involved in violence, continued pressing its court case to force the electoral commission to release results from the presidential vote. Independent monitors and officials from both parties say Mugabe lost, though they disagree over whether the margin required a runoff. A runoff is triggered if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote.
Independent candidate Simba Makoni, who by most accounts finished a distant third behind opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and Mugabe, also demanded the results Wednesday. "Our votes are not the property of anyone," Makoni said at a news conference in Harare, the capital. "It is our right, as citizens, to get the final results without further delay."
Yet as the fight over results sharpens, the election has already moved into a decidedly anxious new phase out in Zimbabwe's hinterlands, especially in towns such as Marondera, where former Mugabe strongholds produced opposition landslides. The posting of results outside polling stations, a widely praised innovation of this election, has taken on a sinister cast in recent days; they amount to a road map for anyone inclined to punish neighborhoods that strayed from the party's control.
Ruling party officials denied they were using violence to win the runoff.
"I've not heard anything of that sort, but I'm sure that if there is anything like that, the police have the capacity to handle it," said Didymus Mutasa, national security minister.
Yet Zimbabweans see the police as Mugabe's enforcers, not impartial arbiters of peace and justice.
Last October, Carlos Mudzongo, 35, wore an opposition T-shirt into a rural area and was assaulted by five ruling party youths, he said. When he sought help from the police, three officers beat him with broomsticks and electrical cords, he said. Such stories are common here.
Ruling party youths, dressed in white T-shirts bearing the logo and acronym of Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF, have begun assembling outside the houses of opposition activists and singing a warning in Shona that translates as, "The war has come."
On Wednesday morning, they stopped outside the house of Leonard Mandaza, 59, an opposition candidate who also won a seat on Marondera's town council. He said that most of the youths appeared to be from out of town, but one was from Marondera and showed the others where to focus their energies. Mandaza said he expected more visits soon.
"They will act at night," he said.
"I will fight like a dog, teeth and legs," he added grimly. "If they want war, then we can retaliate."
The hard words signal a dramatic shift in mood since the first days after the election, when even some of Mugabe's closest associates were urging him to step down. Since then, it has become clear that he has decided to fight, with the support of the military, police, party youths and veterans of the nation's liberation war who have renewed their assault on white-owned commercial farms after several years of relative quiet.
In Marondera, nearly every party activist has a story of beatings or torture. They have been roused by police in the middle of the night. Their children have been taunted and in some cases abducted. Several say they fear to venture outside after dark.
Opposition activist Diamond Tenfara, 50, a retired accountant, said he has been abducted by the secret police so many times that he can no longer count the episodes. But he recalled the most memorable form of torture used on him: He was stripped naked, then forced to sit on a chair wired with electrodes.
"It was hot everywhere," Tenfara said.
Muzambi, who keeps his bloodied shirt folded in a bedroom closet in hopes of some day testifying against his attackers in court, said the assault was not the most frightening day of this election season. That came two weeks later, when the secret police pulled up outside his house in three pickup trucks. By the time he found his way outside, they had handcuffed and bundled off his brother, 37, and his son, 32.
The two emerged from custody two days later, their bodies battered, Muzambi said. His son had a broken left arm; his brother a broken right thigh bone.
With more attacks being chronicled every day, and with a purge underway against some officials on the electoral commission, Muzambi said he figures the runoff has already been lost. Or rather, stolen by a ruling party determined to win.
"If they burn down two houses," he said, people "won't vote MDC again. They will run."