Zimbabwean family loses home

Farmer Ben Freeth's home burns in Chegutu, Zimbabwe. The home of his father-in-law burned down three days later. (Ben Freeth / August 30, 2009)

Mike Campbell sat and watched the flames. The 76-year-old Zimbabwean farmer desperately wanted to help. But you can't fight a fire with a walking stick.

So the fierce, proud man who had spent so many years fighting for his land was forced to stand by as his family used green branches to fight the blaze burning toward his daughter's home.

"It's a terrible feeling when you stand there, helpless. I can't really move very fast," said Campbell, who never really recovered after being beaten by thugs loyal to President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe's election violence in June 2008.

His wife, Angela, 67, had a garden hose, but the wind was too fierce, the flames too high. After a while she just wandered aimlessly, dazed and silent.

A spark popped and leaped like a fire imp into the thatched roof. A flame snaked, wickedly. Soon, the home was engulfed.

Mike Campbell has endured layer upon layer of loss, leaving him raw, diminished. The court battle to reverse the government's seizure of his and other white-owned farms. The beating that nearly killed him and left him unable to do simple sums. The invaders who finally forced him off his farm and frightened off their ancient horse, Ginger, now living wild in the bush.

But loss hadn't finished with him yet.

Three days after his daughter's home burned down, the farmhouse where he had lived for 36 years, raising a family and building a business, was also consumed by fire.

"It's been a hard week," said Angela, speaking by phone from Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, on Friday. "First Ben and Laura's house burning down. And then ours."

'I don't need you killed too!'

After ruling party hard-liners led by a man named Chimbambira seized Campbell's farm in April, militants repeatedly threatened to burn daughter Laura's house unless the family, with three children ages 4 to 9, moved out too.

Once Chimbambira's men ran a burning sack along the thatched eaves. Another night they dragged burning tires into the house and courtyard. They rang an old bell and sang militant songs.

"The fire was pretty terrifying, but the most terrifying thing was the noise they were making," son-in-law Ben Freeth said, recalling the recent threats. "All the singing and shouting and threatening, that was really intimidating."

So when his house burned down Aug. 30, Freeth had a feeling the fire was deliberately lit. (Chimbambira denied any role in a phone interview.)

"There was a big wind blowing the fire straight towards the house," Freeth said in an interview Wednesday in Johannesburg, South Africa, during a brief visit. "There was a lot of dry grass. It moved very quickly, and the flames were high.

"I saw a spark fly from one of the workers' houses onto the thatched roof of our house. I realized there was nothing we could do.

"I just shouted: 'There's no plan! Just get what you can!' "

He ran inside and plucked the passports and birth certificates from the safe. He ran back inside, grabbed the two laptops and stashed them in his car.

The family's 2-year-old Scottish terrier, Topsy, cowered somewhere inside. He died in the fire.