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?"
In Zaka, where the MDC won several parliamentary seats held by the ruling party, tensions remain high. Harrison Mudzuri, who barely captured one of the posts, said intimidation of his supporters is "rife."
But the supporters, he said, are simmering with anger at the neighbors who they say carried out the attacks and should be punished. The power-sharing deal does mention prosecution of perpetrators.
"Truly speaking, the issue of amnesty is not in our vocabulary," Mudzuri said.
Tsumele, his uncle said, was campaigning for what MDC supporters thought might finally become a reality: a victory that would deliver democracy to Zimbabwe and international aid to help Zaka, a drought-stricken area in southern Zimbabwe, where most people are subsistence farmers and survive on donated food.
Instead, a gang of gun-wielding ZANU-PF supporters came to the opposition office in the tiny town of Jerera at 3 a.m. They shot one young man, forced the others onto the ground, sprinkled them with fuel and lit a match, Mudzuri and witnesses said. Tsumele, his clothes in flames, ran more than two miles to a hospital, then spent five months recovering at a hospital in Harare. Three people were killed.
Though months have passed, the incident remains fresh in Zaka. Lawrence Tsumele said he cannot count the number of times his ZANU-PF neighbors have told him they are "not done" with his family. Alice Chigudu, Tsumele's mother, said an old woman recently sneered at her MDC T-shirt and said, "That's why you were burned."
"We are very bitter," Chigudu, 45, said quietly, speaking inside her thatched-roof hut. "If I see someone with a ZANU-PF T-shirt, I get very angry and agitated. At times, tears run down my cheeks."
But she smiled as she explained that her side is not simply taking the harassment. Many are demanding the return of chickens and grain they say were stolen by opponents before the elections, she said. And at an August party in honor of a deceased ancestor, she said, she watched as about 20 MDC loyalists beat a ZANU-PF supporter so badly that he was "taken away in a wheelbarrow."
"It was revenge," she said. "It was one of the perpetrators of violence before the elections. So the MDC supporters were avenging for his evil deeds."
From his bed, where he listens to a radio and pages through a 1986 issue of National Geographic magazine, Tsumele said he would like to do the same to Mugabe.
"Tsvangirai should be in power!" said Tsumele, his face wrapped in bandages, his burned skin wrinkled and scarred. "It is very unfair."
Edison Gwenhure, 28, who also survived the fuel attack, speaks with less confidence. To get from one place to another, he zigzags through the dusty countryside, avoiding the homes of ruling party backers he fears might abduct him. Gwenhure sleeps at relatives' homes at night, "so that if anything happens, it will happen in the eyes of others," he said, his gaze cemented to the ground as he fiddled with his shoelaces.
A few weeks ago, Gwenhure said, he was sitting in a shop in Jerera with a friend when two older men passed by. He recognized them as Mugabe supporters. They laughed at his burns.
"One said: 'That is not enough. We should have done something worse,' " Gwenhure said.
Before June, he had a bicycle-repair business. But he had to abandon it because his hands were deformed by fire, and his left foot, shot at by one of the attackers, is missing four toes. Last year, he harvested corn. This year, as is the case across Zimbabwe, there is no seed. He gets by on the charity of relatives.
Gwenhure said he does not regret campaigning for the MDC, and he thinks a political solution still could come. But he is worried.
"Our hope has been dashed off. We were hoping that things would normalize and get better. Now we are desperate," he said. "And the situation can get worse. Violence could return."