EZAKHIWENI, South Africa -- The valley is eerily quiet. A large school stands empty, its windows broken and chairs piled up outside like firewood. The general store's black gates are padlocked. A thousand houses are shut tight, curtains drawn, the inhabitants gone. Abandoned dogs pad along the empty red-clay footpaths.
And up on the green hilltop are 10 fresh graves.
Elizabeth Ndimande returned home briefly the other day to prepare a hot meal of beans for her six children. But she didn't plan to stay long.
"Everyone has run away," she said. "Now we sleep in the forest." She knows there are others there, too. "I hear their children crying at night," she said. "But we don't speak."
Cycle of Revenge
Fear has saturated the Ezakhiweni valley and dozens of other lush green valleys in South Africa's Natal province, where gangs from one valley invade the next valley in what has become a perpetual cycle of revenge.
The death rate, after four years and 1,500 killings, has quickened to an average of two a day. And about 40,000 refugees like Ndimande and her children have fled to church missions, schools and the bush.
The violence, now the bloodiest political unrest in the country's turbulent history, has cast a long shadow over the black liberation struggle. Not only has it begun to destroy the fabric of families and communities, but it also threatens to undermine the unity that black leaders say is crucial to dislodging white minority rule here.
Jailed black nationalist leader Nelson R. Mandela recently said that the legacy of hatred and bitterness among blacks in Natal "may haunt us for years to come."
The South African government has been unable to halt the trouble despite the broad powers of arrest and detention granted police under a three-year-old emergency decree. But it vowed last week to beef up police patrols and use "an iron fist" to protect "the peace-loving residents" of Natal's townships.
The trouble is the result of a power struggle between the United Democratic Front (UDF), the large anti-apartheid coalition with close links to the exiled African National Congress (ANC), and the more conservative Inkatha movement led by Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi.
Leaders Call for Peace
Both Mandela, leader of the ANC, and Buthelezi have called for peace in the region. Buthelezi recently asked his supporters "to stand shoulder to shoulder with the ANC, the UDF and other organizations to outlaw violence. Neighbor has to act with neighbor, regardless of political affiliation."
"In my entire political career," Mandela recently wrote Buthelezi from prison, "few things have distressed me (so much) as to see our people killing one another as they are now."
But the killing has become self-perpetuating, guided, like the gang violence in Los Angeles, by the unrelenting tug of intimidation and revenge.
"One almost despairs about any future dialogue taking place," said Peter Kerchoff, head of the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness. A daily stream of bereaved families comes through Kerchoff's office doors.
Rolling Green Land
The violence stretches along 45 miles of rolling green land that the late Alan Paton described in his novel "Cry, the Beloved Country" as "lovely beyond any singing of it." It begins in townships outside the bucolic community of Pietermaritzburg and ends in the sprawling squatter settlements near Durban, on the Indian Ocean.
The latest outbreak here, near Hammarsdale, began earlier this year when more than 30 people were killed in various attacks by Inkatha-supporting vigilantes in Kwambiza, in a valley next to Ezakhiweni, according to residents.
Then, five Inkatha supporters were shot to death by UDF "comrades" while drinking beer at a tavern in Ezakhiweni town, an Inkatha stronghold. An avenging gang gunned down six more people in Kwambiza on a Sunday and, on the next Tuesday, seven people were murdered in Ezakhiweni.
A tense week passed. Then a shopkeeper in Kwambiza was shot to death and his store burned. All that remained from the soot-stained rubble was a sign outside reading, "Sunlight Soap Cleans Everything."
Battle at Cemetery
Two days later, a gang from Kwambiza marched into Ezakhiweni at midday and confronted Inkatha members who had just buried seven of their own amid the waist-high grass of a hilltop cemetery. Two Inkatha members died in that battle.
Elizabeth Ndimande heard the automatic weapons fire: "It sounded like a motorbike." And then she and more than 100 residents fled for the safety of the bush, leaving behind their chickens and cows.
"I'm still afraid we may be attacked," she said several days later as she fed the chickens and shelled beans for her children, ages 3 to 15. Her husband fears the weekend trip home from his job in Durban, she said, and she cannot go for more food because the nearest open store is in Kwambiza.
"Anyone who isn't Inkatha will be killed in Kwambiza," she said.
Houses Empty, Schools Closed
Today, a thousand houses stand empty in Kwambiza, and 300 are vacant in Ezakhiweni. Two schools have closed, and truck drivers carrying supplies for Ezakhiweni stores are afraid to travel through Kwambiza to deliver their goods.
One of Ndimande's neighbors, Betty Sibisi, born in Ezakhiweni 75 years ago, said things "were always peaceful here until three months ago."
"Now this trouble seems to happen every time we bury someone," Sibisi added, rubbing her coarse hands over a mat filled with peanuts drying in the hot sun.
The South African police added extra officers in Natal last year, but the death toll rose from 400 in 1987 to 660 in 1988, according to human rights groups. At least 200 have been killed so far this year, they say. Social workers say the estimate is probably too low because many villagers will not report killings to the authorities and instead quietly bury their own dead.
Battles for Supremacy
Police and relief workers in Natal say they are seeing less political and more plainly criminal activity in recent months. And many of the deaths, especially in the squalid, overcrowded squatter camps near Durban where 1.7 million blacks live, are the result of battles for territorial supremacy and scarce resources such as water.
More than half the blacks around Durban live in shacks, an average of five people to a room, and the per-capita income is about $8 a month, researchers say.
"People are getting very frustrated and irresponsible," said Kerchoff of the Agency for Christian Social Awareness. "And it goes back to the underlying cause--apartheid. Blacks don't have enough housing, schools or money. You have a very frustrated group of people."
When the police are present, some say, they are able to keep the lid on the trouble. "But as soon as the police leave, violence springs up again," said one relief worker. "It's a pressure cooker."
Many civil rights advocates in Natal say the police have attempted to restore order by supporting Inkatha members. The UDF, for example, has been banned from political activity by the government, and many of its leaders who could participate in peace talks have been detained or restricted by the government. Inkatha operates under no such government restrictions.
Buthelezi, the Inkatha leader, opposes apartheid, and he has refused to negotiate with the government until it releases the ANC's Mandela, who is serving a life jail term for sabotage.
Split With ANC
But Buthelezi, who split with the ANC three decades ago, is considered a sellout by many of Mandela's supporters for accepting the white minority-led government's appointment as head of the quasi-independent homeland of Kwazulu. And while Buthelezi's politics are viewed with some suspicion by the government, he and his 1.5 million followers are considered much more moderate than the 2-million-member UDF or its ideological companion, the ANC.
"It's in the interest of the government that Inkatha should wield the power in the black areas," one anti-apartheid activist said.
The police deny working hand in hand with Inkatha, but they maintain that Inkatha is generally blameless. Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok recently told Parliament that the African National Congress, acting through the United Democratic Front, was "clearly responsible" for the Natal violence.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions, a UDF affiliate, says that its survey of 29 attacks near Pietermaritzburg this year showed that Inkatha was responsible for 16, police for three and UDF supporters for three, and that seven were carried out by unidentified people. The union federation also contends that several Inkatha members repeatedly implicated by residents in township attacks have yet to be charged by police.
"Residents could only conclude that police were acting in concert with wrongdoers, or that there were two separate systems of justice operating," the unions' report said.
Several efforts to quell the violence, including a peace accord signed last year by Inkatha and the UDF, have failed. Neither side seems able to control its young supporters, and each day's killings create another group of grieving relatives thinking only of revenge.
"There is no simple solution to this whole thing," Brig. Jac Buchner, security police commander for Natal, said in a recent interview. "There are still about 600 murders to be avenged, in my book."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times