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They beat him, but not into submission

Times Staff Writer

The ancient chestnut horse, Ginger, stands on the veranda near the farmhouse door, waiting for a treat. But the old farmer and his wife do not come.

The farm dogs leap like dancers, extravagantly pleased to have visitors. The cats bask in the sun. Four red hens peck busily in the flower beds. The garden is alive with bird chatter. But the house stands silent and empty.

No one has lived here since late June, when Mike Campbell, 74, and his wife, Angela, were attacked by militants associated with Zimbabwe’s ruling party, which targeted white farmers as well as opposition supporters in the recent election violence.

The beating was so brutal that Campbell’s friends didn’t recognize photographs taken of him after the nine-hour ordeal. Angela, 67, says her faith sustained her when the men wanted to cut off her fingers because her rings had gotten stuck.

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Campbell, one of the few white farmers left in Zimbabwe, had got plenty of government warnings to vacate his spread, which he had named Mount Carmel. He ignored all of them.

He was a feisty, gruff fellow with the determined vigor of someone convinced that he was right and with a hide as tough as a rhino’s. If he had a soft side, he kept it well-hidden.

He approached life like a warrior, battling thieves who tried to steal mangoes and the government minister, Nathan Shamuyayira, who wanted to seize the farm where he and Angela had lived for nearly 35 years.

But even tough men can get broken. In early July, he was lying on a bed with four ribs, a collarbone and a foot broken, a dislocated finger and bruises all over his body, including a huge purple one covering the side of his head.

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His voice quavered. Occasionally he lost a phrase or an idea and had to pause, racking his brain. Answering questions exhausted him.

He had survived. But suddenly, he seemed like an old man.

“Tough. Jeepers, he’s tough,” said Campbell’s son, Bruce, 42, who farms with him. Remembering the night of the attack, he says, “I can’t believe he survived. I thought my old man was going to die when I picked him up.”

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The ruling ZANU-PF, shocked by its poor result in the March elections, has accused the opposition Movement for Democratic Change of planning to return land to white farmers, reversing “the fruits of the liberation struggle” against the white regime of Ian Smith in the 1970s.

In the subsequent campaign for the presidential runoff, war veterans and ZANU-PF militias invaded farms, beat or evicted white families and their black workers and looted houses. The ruling party set up hundreds of militia bases from which to attack opposition activists and supporters.

Campbell believed the militias might burn down his house. But if he was afraid, he certainly wouldn’t show it. He packed up his silver and china and a beloved antique military chest and sent them away.

He and Angela stayed put.

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“Where do you go?” he said in Harare, the capital, where he was recuperating. “The best thing is just to stay. I don’t think we would ever have given up.”

On June 28, the last Sunday of the month, the day Robert Mugabe had himself inaugurated to another term as president after a one-man presidential runoff, the couple went to church and a family lunch in Chegutu. It was eerily quiet in town.

When they returned home at midafternoon, the two-way radio inside crackled urgently. Bruce had news that ZANU-PF militias had badly beaten an old man on a neighboring farm. The radio sputtered and died before he could warn them that the gang had declared it was on its way to Mount Carmel.

Less than 10 minutes later, Angela heard a shrieking yelp from one of her pointers as it was clubbed. Dozens of men had driven into the yard. They were young, in their teens and early 20s, and carrying shotguns and rifles stolen from a nearby farm. They leapt from a pickup also taken from the farm. Others poured from the back of a white minibus -- about 30 in all.

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“They even had spears and sticks,” she says. “Spears. Can you believe it?”

The men swarmed around them. Campbell was knocked unconscious almost immediately, beaten on the head. A tall, thin gunman smashed Angela’s arm, shattering the bone above her elbow. The two were trussed up tightly.

When the radio died, Bruce had frantically phoned Ben Freeth, the Campbells’ son-in-law, who lives in the homestead next to Mount Carmel. Freeth raced to the Campbells’ house, where he was captured and beaten on the head with a rifle butt, causing a 5-inch fracture in his skull.

Bruce, 10 minutes away, realized there was little point in going to the police. He knew they had been ordered to stay out of election violence. So he was on his own. He had a pistol, against a mob he knew was heavily armed.

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He had one goal -- to save his parents. But how?

Mike Campbell is an irritant to the Mugabe regime. He has challenged the government’s efforts to seize his farm in the region’s highest court, the Southern African Development Community Tribunal, which hears legal appeals from its 14 member countries. Seventy-seven other white farmers have joined him in fighting a 2005 constitutional amendment that denied them the right to appeal eviction orders.

Zimbabwe’s land conflict is complex. Britain had funded the redistribution of land from white farmers to blacks in its former colony, but stopped in 1997, concerned that Mugabe’s cronies were mainly the ones benefiting from the reform. Mugabe, angry that many white farmers supported the political opposition, ordered war veterans to take over their farms in 2000, triggering the collapse of agriculture, the country’s main export business.

Once a regional powerhouse, the country no longer could feed its population. Related industries slumped. The government, starved of foreign currency, printed more and more money to pay its workers, triggering rampant hyperinflation.

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In the last year, the highway running 60 miles southwest from Harare to Chegutu has crumbled into a honeycomb of potholes. The town looks tired and threadbare.

The roadsides are speckled with hitchhikers. But the poorest just walk. Some men wear shirts reduced to a lace of holes or plod along in shoes that flap open. People of all ages cart firewood from the bush, some balancing entire branches on their heads, others pushing handcarts. Even the rubber scattered on the roads from tire blowouts is reverently saved.

Days after the attack at Mount Carmel, people are selling tomatoes, sweet potatoes or oranges along the road. Bruce Campbell nods darkly at a gaggle of orange vendors.

“All those oranges are stolen,” he says. “They’re coming off my friend’s place over there.”

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On the day of the attack, Bruce rushed to his parents’ farm as soon as the radio died. He crept up on the house. He could hear shouting and thudding inside and people running around in the bedroom and living room. He heard his parents’ car started up and driven off.

He sprinted into the house, but his parents were gone. He gave chase and the militants peppered his car with bullets; he fired back with a pistol.

The militiamen had thrown his father and brother-in-law into the back of the Campbells’ SUV. As the cars played cat and mouse at terrifying speed, Angela was sandwiched in the back seat between the men shooting at Bruce. She could hear the broken bone in her upper arm grinding against itself. She was terrified that her husband was dying.

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Darkness fell and Bruce lost sight of the militants. He sat in his car on the side of the highway, not knowing where his parents and brother-in-law were, whether they were alive or how to rescue them.

They had been taken to a nearby militia base, with dozens of young men wearing ruling party T-shirts and bandannas emblazoned with the slogan “100 percent empowerment.” The militants drenched the captives with cold water.

“It was a very cold night. We were bitterly cold,” says Angela. “I’ve never shaken so much from the cold for so long. The ordeal lasted nine hours from beginning to end.”

They tried to take off her rings, but some stuck, so they discussed cutting off her fingers.

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“I said, ‘Look, there’s a better way. Get some soap and water and I’ll get them off for you.’” She removed the rings, but then the beatings started.

Freeth was whipped for hours on his back and the soles of his feet.

“They picked up this burning stick and just shoved it in my mouth and burned my lips,” Angela says. The men forced her to sign a document pledging to withdraw the court case. Hoping to stop the beatings, she signed. But the document has no legal force.

The militants kept talking about killing them. At one point, Angela felt despair wash over her. She looked up at the stars strewn across the blackness. They gave her hope.

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She prayed. Freeth, deeply religious, remembered a biblical phrase he had always struggled with: Bless your tormentors. So he reached out to the militants who were beating his feet, crying out blessings. He says he felt no hate.

About midnight, they were taken out and dumped beside the highway. By the time Mike Campbell got to the hospital, his breathing was labored and his veins had collapsed.

“Never once did terror take hold,” Angela says. “All through this there was calmness, almost like a serenity that I cannot account for except that it was God that kept me from terror. I never once panicked. I kept my cool even when they were tugging the rings and some guy said, ‘Let’s cut off her fingers.’ ”

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As she relates the story late one afternoon in July, her husband lies quietly in bed, adding a comment here or there, but saying little.

The Mike Campbell of old seems suspended like a ghost in the golden evening light: the man who relished a controversial debate; who couldn’t help dominating the conversation; who reminisced nostalgically about fighting on the side of the white Rhodesian government against the black liberation fighters and thumbed his nose at political correctness.

That Mike Campbell told The Times last year: “Make no mistake -- a very large part of what has been going on is, the person who is on the land owns it. The moment you move off, you’re finished.”

He’d come from a family of “pretty resolute people.” He seemed strong then, despite losses cascading like a complicated domino structure, nudged too early, before it was finished.

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Campbell had achieved his life’s dream, a successful tourist game farm, only to see the game killed off by poachers and the safari lodge burned to the ground.

The government had seized Bruce’s farm. Campbell also had built a successful fruit export business, which the government was determined to seize. Grimly, he kept on going.

But after the attack, he seems whittled down, diminished.

Still, if Campbell’s attackers hoped the farmer would be cowed into withdrawing his case, they would be disappointed.

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“We never, ever had any idea of dropping the court case,” Campbell says as he reclines in his hospital bed. “No matter what.”

In a July hearing, his lawyers called on the tribunal to rule that the Zimbabwean government was in contempt for breaching an order that the 78 farmers should not be harassed or evicted before its judgment. In response, Mugabe’s lawyers walked out of the tribunal. The case continues.

On the farm, Ginger neighs hopefully when visitors come. The staff is taking care of him and the other animals, but he misses Angela; he likes to follow her around the garden like a loyal, oversized dog.

When Angela speaks about returning to her home, she is a little vague. “Our future is really very blank,” she says. “We have no idea of the future of Zimbabwe.”

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But put the same question to Mike Campbell, and he snaps back into his lifetime habit of grim determination. He shrugs off his shrunken self like a coat he’s outgrown.

“We’ll go back to the farm as soon as we can, as soon as our health allows us to,” he says. “If you can give an attribute to the African person, one of the things he respects is not giving up.”

After the attack, the Campbells spent just over five weeks in Harare, recovering. Today, they are going back home, to Ginger and their dogs and cats, their flower-filled garden and their farm.

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robyn.dixon@latimes.com

Last year, Dixon wrote about the Campbells and the fight for their farm. To read that article, go to latimes.com/world.


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