A mood of despair has fallen over Zimbabwe's second-largest city following a two-day curfew imposed in the western suburbs as the Army and police conducted a house-to-house search for weapons and alleged insurgents.
"We are in deep, deep trouble," an aide to opposition leader Joshua Nkomo said here today. "There is no future here. As a people, we are finished."
Authorities concluded their sweep of the area and lifted the curfew tonight, although police patrols and traffic checkpoints were still in force.
The weekend's events appeared to confirm what some analysts long have maintained: that Nkomo and his Zimbabwe African People's Union political party have no effective strategy to protect his supporters in this city and the surrounding Matabeleland region from harassment by followers of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe.
Some believe Nkomo's only choice now is either to concede defeat and seek what would surely be for him a publicly humiliating accommodation with longtime political rival Mugabe, or to encourage his followers to retreat into the bush and wage a full-scale guerrilla war against the government. Either way the influence of the 66-year-old patriarch is likely to continue to wane.
Nkomo inadvertently demonstrated his increasing powerlessness by his actions this weekend. He fled his home in the western suburbs hours before soldiers cordoned off the area, according to aides, and went into seclusion fearing for his safety. He left his followers in the densely populated townships to fend for themselves.
This morning he traveled to Harare, Zimbabwe's capital and one of Mugabe's political strongholds, where he said at a press conference this afternoon that the military curfew imposed on Bulawayo was "inhumane and degrading" and part of a government effort to intimidate his followers here into supporting Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union in the national elections scheduled for June.
The large-scale military crackdown here, believed to have involved between 8,000 and 10,000 soldiers and police, had been planned for at least a week, military sources said, and Nkomo's supporters had several days' advance warning. Yet they offered no apparent resistance.
"At this point they really don't have anything to resist with," said a church official with close ties to members of Nkomo's party. "People realize that ZAPU has basically been disarmed."
The empty streets, lifeless tonight even after the restrictions had been lifted, attested to the effectiveness of the crackdown. While details from the restricted zone remained sketchy, witnesses said dozens of young men affiliated with Nkomo's party, including the relatives of several party leaders, were rounded up and were being held at police camps.
The official explanation of the military operation was factional violence in which two members of the ruling party and one from Nkomo's party were killed here late last month. But Nkomo's supporters here see the crackdown as part of a pattern of terror and intimidation designed to speed his political demise.
That campaign has claimed dozens of new victims in rural Matabeleland in recent weeks, according to church officials and missionaries in the region. They confirmed today that dozens of prominent villagers have disappeared from the Tsholotsho, Kezi and Nkayi areas in recent weeks and that there have been beatings and at least a half dozen deaths.
As has been the case often in political violence during three years here, no one can say for certain who is responsible for the incidents. Villagers talk of men entering the rural areas at night in unmarked vehicles with no license plates. They usually leave with someone in custody who is not seen again.
"Nobody knows . . . what has happened to them," a senior church leader here said.
Government officials in Harare concede that lawlessness has increased in recent weeks, but they blame it on people they call "dissidents." These are former members of the Army who deserted after Nkomo was dismissed from Mugabe's Cabinet in 1982. They are said to remain loyal to Nkomo, and although he denies any connection with them, Mugabe has branded him "the father of dissidents."
But residents here maintain that the only "dissidents" roaming the countryside are government soldiers terrorizing civilians and instigating violence that the government can then use as a pretext for further crackdowns.
"People are starting to get fed up," a missionary said. "They're saying they've got nothing to lose."
One sign of their anger is that despite the fact that thousands have purchased membership cards from the ruling party for protection, voters in northern Matabeleland recently gave Nkomo's party an overwhelming victory in local elections.
That suggests to some observers that Nkomo's party will hold most of its parliamentary seats in the region in the national elections. If so, some predict another round of confrontations between a government determined to break Nkomo's hold over the area and an opposition determined to keep its foothold.
"They [government officials] are underestimating the people," said a church official with long experience in the region. He sees the dispute in tribal terms and believes the Ndebele speakers who dominate this region never will willingly submit to the Shona-speaking majority.