Tough Zimbabwe farm family survives another blow

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

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.

The thatch had burned away and the roof beams were still in flames when Freeth ran back in a third time taking what he could, randomly. Plates from the kitchen, for starters.

But it was too much for Laura.

“She just shouted: ‘I don’t need you killed too! We’ve lost everything. We don’t need a few plates.’ ”

Campbell’s tractor, hooked up to a 530-gallon water tank and a high-pressure sprayer, was sitting at his farm next door. It would have saved the house.

“The most troubling part of Sunday was the feeling of helplessness, knowing that the tractor was there and we could not use it to fight the fire,” Freeth said. “It was just a horrible feeling of helplessness.”

Later, a group of Chimbambira’s men drove past with the tractor and water tank, trawling slowly back and forth as the house burned, but doing nothing to help.

“You just feel angry,” Freeth said. “We couldn’t see their laughter. But we could feel it.”

‘It doesn’t belong to Mike Campbell’

When Chimbambira and his men took over Campbell’s farm, they defied an order by Southern Africa’s highest court, the Southern African Development Community tribunal, that Campbell and other farmers shouldn’t be evicted.

In the phone interview, Chimbambira initially claimed that he took Campbell’s land because government officials gave him the deed. Later in the interview, he said he was managing the property for an official with the ruling ZANU-PF party, Nathan Shamuyayira.

“It doesn’t belong to Mike Campbell,” said Chimbambira, describing Campbell and his family as “dangerous.” He denied any role in the fires that burned the two homes and said he saw the Campbell house start to burn.

“I started seeing some smoke coming from the windows in the house. That’s all I know. Nothing was left except some of the things which we managed to pull out -- the television and some sofas.”

Freeth says his wife received a call from one of Chimbambira’s workers claiming to have seen Chimbambira set the house alight.

“There’s no witness like that,” Chimbambira said.

He said he wouldn’t recognize the SADC tribunal ruling, only the Zimbabwean government.

“We are not in SADC. We are Zimbabwe,” he said. “In Zimbabwe we have got laws. Me, I follow what I have been told by my government.”

He used to grow potatoes on a 160-acre farm in another part of the country, but has no knowledge of Campbell’s crops: mangoes and citrus. His plan for the 3,000-acre farm: plant potatoes.

When I visited Freeth’s home in May, I took a stroll with him to the edge of Campbell’s farm and saw a tractor reaping mangoes. Chimbambira’s men gave chase, shouting threats.

“Come here! I’ll shoot you. I’ll cut your neck.”

In the phone interview, Chimbambira even remembered the clothes I was wearing.

“I can remember,” he said. “You are a dangerous woman.”

Still clinging to hope

There is no insurance in Zimbabwe, but somehow, Freeth said, they’ll raise the money to rebuild the “five-star mud hut” he designed himself, and the linen business that employed 60 local women.

Losing the family dog was wrenching. And he’ll miss some of the things the fire took. A library of books. One or two treasured first editions. The family photographs and slides of adventure trips with his best friend. And it hurt that the laptops he put in the car were stolen as the family fought to save what they could.

“But . . . they’re just things,” he murmured.

His voice trailed off, and he stared numbly ahead. “It’s actually much harder having Mike’s house burned down than ours, because we can rebuild,” he said. “He’s too old.”

Living in a friend’s house in Harare, Mike and Angela Campbell cling to the hope that somehow they’ll get their land back. But thinking about what to do now, Mike Campbell’s voice quavered a little.

“We’re not allowed to go there. And the house is flat, anyway.”

Can he rebuild, after all that’s happened?

“I don’t know, quite honestly,” he said. “I’ll have to look at it. I just don’t know.”

For previous stories on the Campbells, go to