Though Widespread Brutality Has Ebbed in Zimbabwe, Political Violence Simmers and Threatens to Reignite

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 30, 2008

ZAKA, Zimbabwe -- Perhaps, Kudakwashe Tsumele said, it is better that he cannot walk. If he could traverse the red dirt pathways surrounding his rural home, he might pass supporters of this troubled nation's ruling party. And then, he said, he "would want to kill."

Instead, Tsumele, 22, lies mutilated by burns and bedridden under a blue mosquito net, six months after armed thugs loyal to President Robert Mugabe set fire to the opposition party office where he was working as a campaign volunteer. If he could leave his brick shanty, his relatives said, he might face what they do: taunts from ruling party backers, promises of more blazes.

"There is no trust between them and us," said his uncle, Lawrence Tsumele, 43. "There is no light."

The June 3 attack was part of a bloody crackdown designed by Zimbabwe's security forces after opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai outpolled Mugabe, the nation's leader for 28 years, in the March presidential election. Tsvangirai pulled out of a runoff three months later, citing the violence that left more than 80 opposition supporters dead. Mugabe won that vote, which was internationally condemned. The parties signed a power-sharing deal in September, but they have deadlocked over its implementation.

As Zimbabwe's leaders haggle, hostilities remain raw on the ground, where rivalries are so hardened that reconciliation seems a distant notion. Widespread brutality has subsided, but politically motivated violence directed largely against the opposition -- including torture, looting, assault and rape -- has continued, and threats are on a dangerous upswing, activists and elected officials say.

"There is a lot of animosity between neighbors, where people are saying, 'It was you who gave my name to the perpetrators,' or, 'It was your son who attacked my husband,' " said Jestina Mukoko, executive director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, which tracks human rights violations. "There's a dark cloud hanging. And we are not really sure what that dark cloud is going to bring. There could be an eruption of new violence."

Human rights organizations and the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, point to worrying signs. About one month ago, 14 MDC activists and a toddler were detained by state police in pre-dawn raids, the party said. Their whereabouts are unknown, according to Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.

Luke Tamborinyoka, an MDC spokesman, said eight of about 2,000 bases used by the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF, to carry out violence during the campaign have recently been manned again, perhaps in anticipation of new elections if the power-sharing negotiations fail. Mukoko said her organization had received similar reports and surmised that ZANU-PF forces were "waiting for some sort of signal."

Most concrete, Mukoko said, is a recent surge in reports of harassment and intimidation, mostly against MDC loyalists. According to her organization's monitors, who compile reports from civic groups across the nation, nearly 750 such incidents were documented in September, 323 more than in August.

The September report said that opposition supporters have been forced to pay fines, interrogated for celebrating the power-sharing deal, denied government-funded food rations and threatened with evictions. In about 10 percent of all incidents, the report noted, the perpetrators have been MDC supporters for whom it is "payback time."

Ephraim Masawi, a deputy national spokesman for ZANU-PF, denied reports of ongoing political violence and intimidation and said the party's bases -- which he said were used for campaigning but not torture, as human rights activists allege -- are shuttered.

"We have never encouraged, condoned or supported violence against the MDC," Masawi said. Of the bases, he said, "Why should we reestablish them now when we are going to have elections in 2013?"

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