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Gangs go after Mugabe opponents

Times Staff Writer

The mob materialized quietly in the fading dusk light. There were 50 youths hurrying along, armed with sticks, rawhide whips and knives. It was Sunday night, just over a week after Zimbabwe’s disputed national elections, and even before the shouting began, John Saramu knew what was going to happen.

He felt it in the knot of fear in his stomach.

“They just appeared on the corner. In my heart I felt afraid. I saw them very close to me,” said Saramu, an activist for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in a farming district outside the town of Mutare.

“They came into my house. They were shouting, ‘We want to kill you!’ They were saying, ‘We want to go around and find all the MDC supporters one by one, and we want them to get out.’ ”

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Saramu, 39, said he was beaten for two hours by members of a gang that was pro-President Robert Mugabe, and that his house was ransacked before he got away. His right leg and left hand were badly cut.

“I escaped by a whisker. I don’t even know how I did it,” he said. The assailants stole cash and a list of MDC members, which could be used to find and terrorize other opponents.

Saramu and about 50 other activists near Mutare in Manicaland province were hunted down in their homes, said Misheck Kagurabadza, the area’s MDC parliamentary candidate, who defeated his foe from the ruling ZANU-PF party in the recent election.

Intimidation of opposition activists is occurring in rural areas of Zimbabwe that have traditionally been ruling party strongholds but where the MDC scored upset parliamentary victories. One activist has been killed.

The fear tactics are viewed both as political retribution and as an attempt to scare opposition supporters from backing the MDC in a possible presidential runoff, allowing the 84-year-old Mugabe to hold on to power. Many believe the heavy-handed tactics are working.

MDC spokesman Shadrick Vengesai said hundreds of opposition activists and supporters had been arrested, beaten or displaced in Zimbabwe since the March 29 elections, for which the presidential results have yet to be released by the Electoral Commission. The parliamentary outcome has been announced, and Mugabe’s ZANU-PF, for the first time in the nation’s 28 years, has lost control of the legislative body.

The opposition insists that its candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, won the presidential vote outright, and it fears rising violence if election officials decide a runoff is needed.

The ruling party, which controls appointments to the Electoral Commission, says no candidate won the 50%-plus-one majority to avoid a runoff.

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“We don’t want a second round,” Saramu said. “It’s not very safe for us.”

“It’s very tense,” Kagurabadza said. “Gangs of ZANU-PF militias are patrolling at night and even during the day. They go into the areas where they know there are MDC supporters. They are preparing for the runoff. They will cow people so they don’t vote MDC.”

He said he feared the same thugs would surround polling booths on election day and take down the names of people who voted in an attempt to frighten them, as happened in 2000 and 2002.

As the days drag on without official presidential results, Zimbabweans have gone back to the grind of scraping out a living in a country with a 100,000% inflation rate and severe shortages of food and other basics. Voluntary road crews fill in potholes, money dealers wait on street corners and women sell vegetables to raise money.

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In the capital, Harare, vans with helmeted riot police crawled through the streets Tuesday, arresting female money dealers for illegal street trading. Some opposition activists have been beaten in pro-MDC neighborhoods near the city.

In rural areas, where MDC supporters are isolated and vulnerable, gangs of unemployed thugs have proved easy to unleash.

Though the ruling party won in Mutoko village in Mashonaland East, party supporters, armed with AK-47s and pistols, forced people in the village center to attend an impromptu meeting Sunday morning, witnesses said.

“They stopped people and said they were hunting for MDC activists and they wanted to kill people. They had guns, which they showed us,” said Knowledge Maponda, 26, an MDC supporter but not an activist. Even nurses and patients at a nearby clinic were forced to attend, he said.

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“They said: ‘We are going into a runoff, so you need to vote for the presidential candidate of ZANU-PF. We are not going to tolerate any nonsense. We are going to kill if you vote for the MDC. We are watching you closely.’

“None of us said we were MDC supporters. We were afraid of being killed,” Maponda said.

During the meeting, MDC campaign manager Kuratidza Sandati hid in his home. When they came for him a short while later, his 12-year-old son answered.

“They came and knocked and were told I had gone to the shops. They went to the shops, where they ordered all the doors closed. They were drunk and they were showing everyone their guns, big ones with chains of bullets.”

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Sandati, 39, fled to Harare and reported the incidents to MDC headquarters. Despite the danger, he says he plans to return home.

“I can’t go there safely,” he said. “Now I am very afraid. If I go there, my life is in danger. They want to eliminate some of us.

“But if I am absent it means there will be more and more threats to our followers. If they don’t see us, the MDC is dead there. They’re trying to kill our following.”

Maponda said he doubted people would turn out to vote for the opposition in a runoff.

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“Now people are afraid. If the runoff happens, everyone is going to vote for the party they do not like,” he said.

In Landas, also in Mashonaland East, dozens of ZANU-PF youths have been parading in the streets, singing songs and beating street traders.

“All the people fear those guys. Some people run away because they know they can be beaten up,” said local MDC activist Itai Bindu, 28.

He said the gangs were conducting door-to-door raids at night, dragging opposition activists from their houses and beating them. About 20 people had been beaten since the elections, he said.

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Many activists think the chances of winning a runoff would be slim after several more weeks or months of terror.

But Bindu believes many people are so sick of the Mugabe regime that they won’t desert the opposition even in the face of violence.

“It’s hardening MDC supporters. People are tired of this ZANU-PF. People are saying, ‘We can’t change the results, we’re now MDC people.’ ”

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robyn.dixon@latimes.com


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