2009: Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
8/12/2009
ASNE Staff
Award for Batten Medal
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Batten Medal


Robyn Dixon

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Zimbabwe vote brings hope and resignation

March 30, 2008

Costa Mizha’s eyes blinked open at 4 a.m. Saturday with a sense of anticipation he hadn’t felt in years. This was it, March 29. Election day.

It was like waking up on the day of a big party.

“His time is up now,” Mizha thought. He even felt a strange twang of sympathy for the “Old Man,” unwanted by his country. He was certain in his bones that Zimbabwe’s 84-year-old president, Robert Mugabe, would be chased away in Saturday’s election like a broken-down horse.

“He’s old,” Mizha said. “We feel sympathy for old people.”

Before dawn in another part of Harare, James Moyo was up too, hurrying to the polling booth in the darkness to vote for change.

“Today really is my special day, because this is my last day of hope,” Moyo said. “Today I was happy. I was excited because I said, ‘This is my D-day.’ If we fail to make it this time around, it will be doom.”

That people got up so early and turned out in large numbers to vote was a sign of desperation among a population hoping to escape raging hyperinflation and 80% unemployment. But it was also testament to their faith in democracy after successive flawed elections that have seen Mugabe maintain his grip on power despite big swings against the ruling ZANU-PF party.

Their faith may be tested anew in this election, even as Mugabe faces his toughest challenge in 28 years in power, from within his own party. Political analysts predict that Mugabe is unlikely to cede power and fear the count will be rigged.

There were some reports of irregularities Saturday – voters turned away in opposition strongholds and fraudulent rolls with nonexistent voters. But there was very little violence compared with previous Zimbabwean elections, and the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, a pro-democracy group, said most people seemed to have been able to vote freely.

This, however, had been expected. Activists say the problem usually occurs later, in the central tabulation of regional counts.

‘We’re fed up’

Election day dawned balmy and warm. Police stood on every corner here in the capital.

At about a quarter past 10, traffic froze as Mugabe’s convoy sped out over the potholed roads so the president could vote. Soldiers lined the intersections he passed, and his security detail bristled with automatic weapons.

After the convoy rushed by, it was as if a spell had passed and the city could breathe again, shaking itself back to life.

“We will succeed,” Mugabe said while voting in Harare. “We will conquer. Why should I cheat? The people are there supporting us. The moment people stop supporting you, then that’s the moment you should quit politics.”

But Brian Mwale, 27, saw it differently. A trained but unemployed engineer who scrapes out a living as a trader, he woke up early Saturday, sniffed the air and was sure he could smell it: change.

“There’s change, of course,” he said. “There’s definitely change. The feeling is good. I feel great. I know I have won. There are no doubts about that.

“People are talking very openly. They’re saying, change. We’re fed up. We need the Old Man to go.”

Mwale, tall, slim and hard-wired with self-confidence, speaks rapidly and never allows himself a moment’s doubt or despair. He’s confident of Mugabe’s defeat.

“I never feel hopeless. I know one day I’ll be a rich businessman. I’m educated. I’m a hard worker,” he said. “All this is going to pass. It might take years, but it’s going to pass.”

Zimbabwean elections always seem to evoke irresistible dreams. It’s hard not to be swept away by the hope people feel. But sometimes, for opposition supporters, waking up the day after the count is like the hangover without the party.

Moyo, 43, from the crowded, poor neighborhood of Mbare, on the outskirts of Harare, is a round-faced former bricklayer with a slight potbelly, all that is left of the hard-working, larger-than-life fellow he says he used to be before he lost his job in the government a decade ago.

He makes money now by selling small bags of sugar or salt to support his wife and four children. Not only does it seem his hopes are depleted, but his very essence has dried up.

“If you could have seen me 10 years ago, I was a very big man. Huge,” Moyo said mournfully, recalling the days when a generous belly was a sign of a good life. “Now I am shrinking, I’ve changed the size of my shirt and my trousers. I’m just a useless person. We don’t have anything. I can’t afford to feed my family.”

He picked up the sole of his shoe to show where it was peeling away. “Look at this, look at how we live,” he exclaimed. Then off came the shoes too, revealing the soles of his feet peering through a fine web of sock holes.

Fear of violence

Despite the disappointment for opposition supporters in elections in 2000, 2002 and 2005, people have not given up. They woke up Saturday convinced that this time things were different. Mugabe would not dare cling on.

“He won’t do that,” Mizha said. “If he does, people will rise against him.”

“People are angry,” Mwale said. “They’re hungry. There are no jobs, no transport. Anything could happen.”

In previous elections, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change has planned mass “people power” protests in Harare when Mugabe emerged victorious despite flawed counts. But past protests have been violently crushed, and in recent days Mugabe and his security chiefs warned their opponents to accept the official results or face the consequences.

Mugabe has played cleverly on recent postelection violence in Kenya, and many Zimbabweans fear violence and killings more than the continued economic nose-dive they believe Mugabe represents.

Agnes Moyo, 30, a secretary, is angry about the chaos in her country under Mugabe, and the pointlessness of going to work. Yet, unlike many other anti-Mugabe voters, she said she didn’t see victory as inevitable.

She woke up feeling peaceful and serene, yet slightly troubled by the air of tension and excitement she had sensed in people the day before.

To her, it seemed as if everyone was rushing excitedly in the same direction, without quite knowing why.

“People were very excited, as if they had actually predicted the election results,” she said. “They thought there was going to be change.”

Asked if she felt the same sense of an impending Mugabe defeat, she paused, looking straight ahead. Her voice was soft and flat when she finally spoke.

“I don’t really feel there will be change,” she said. “I just pray to God that there is peace.

“I strongly believe that whatever comes our way, nobody lives forever. There’s going to be change, either naturally or by the ballot. There’s definitely going to be change.”
 


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Mugabe will yield over someone’s dead body

May 24, 2008

Zimbabwe hangs in a dangerous political limbo: A ruling party clique clings to power amid rumors of a coup if President Robert Mugabe loses the upcoming presidential runoff. His opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, far from facing down military hard-liners, has been out of the country for weeks, fearing assassination.

As regional leaders dither, a new wave of systematic abductions and killings of top opposition activists suggests a regime that is unwilling to leave office, even if it loses the second round of voting, scheduled for the end of next month.

“There’s no way we are going to lose the runoff,” one senior ruling party figure said. “We are going to make sure of that. If we lose the runoff, then the army will take over.

“Never be fooled that Tsvangirai will rule this country. Never,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in an interview in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital.

Rights organizations, such as Zimbabwe Doctors for Human Rights, say the level and intensity of the violence far surpasses that surrounding elections in 2000 and 2002. Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change says 43 activists are known to have been killed since the March 29 vote.

The opposition says the government is targeting its top activists and officials and that at least six have been abducted in the last 10 days by heavily armed security officials. Four have been found dead, it says, their bodies showing signs of severe beating and torture. Ten others are missing and feared dead.

MDC activist Tonderai Ndira was dragged from his bed last week by eight security operatives. His body was found Wednesday, dumped in the bush. His brother Barnabas said Ndira’s face had been beaten so badly it was unrecognizable.

Some analysts see the threat of a coup growing, convinced that the punitive violence in Zimbabwe has only increased Mugabe’s unpopularity since he was shocked to find himself in second place behind Tsvangirai in the March vote. But others predict the regime, wary of regional isolation, will opt for at least the pretense of legitimacy, rigging the elections rather than using military force to overturn a Tsvangirai runoff victory.

Mugabe is backed by a group of cronies that includes Rural Housing Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, Defense Forces Commander Gen. Constantine Chiwenga and Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri. Several elite units, including the Presidential Guard, the Fifth Brigade and the National Rapid Reaction Force, are loyal to his regime.

But with the military rank and file deeply disgruntled over their working conditions and angry about the farms, SUVs and fancy lifestyles of their commanders, some predict that a coup would split the army.

“What they also have to worry about is whether they can keep their troops with them,” said a Harare diplomat, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “There’s a great risk they will split the very institution they rely on for support.”

In fact, the rank and file are so alienated that they have not been called in to intimidate and attack opposition members, as they have been in the past.

“It’s the senior officers running the terror campaign in the rural areas,” said Morris, 35, an army captain who spoke to The Times by phone, declining to allow his second name to be published for fear of reprisal.

“They’re burning houses and beating people. It’s being done by colonels and lieutenant colonels. The lower ranks don’t want what is happening. If the Old Man lost, he should just give up. He should respect the wishes of the people,” said Morris, referring to the 84-year-old Mugabe. “Soldiers are very much angry about him. They want him removed from power.

“Soldiers go about in tattered uniforms,” Morris said. “Everything is pathetic. Of all the general population, the people hardest hit are the military. There’s no food in the camps. The officers keep giving us empty promises. At times there are no rations.”

He said some senior officers were also no longer loyal to Mugabe.

“The problem now is they can’t come out, because the higher ranks, the generals, are loyal to the ruling party. They can’t come out for fear of their lives.”

The ruling ZANU-PF party lost control of parliament in the March elections, and, according to official results, Tsvangirai won about 48% of the presidential vote compared with 43% for Mugabe, necessitating the June 27 runoff. The opposition insists that Tsvangirai won in the first round, with 50.3%, and the United States and Britain have questioned the credibility of the official results.

Mnangagwa, the most powerful figure behind Mugabe, is the leader of one of two rival factions in ZANU-PF that have been fighting over succession since last year. As the president’s heir apparent, Mnangagwa has the most to lose from a Mugabe defeat. When Mugabe faced a potential challenge last year, Mnangagwa swung his support to him on the understanding that he would succeed him six months after the election.

Mnangagwa, like the so-called securocrats in the security apparatus, fears prosecution if Tsvangirai wins. He was security minister during massacres in Matabeleland in the early 1980s in which thousands of Mugabe’s political opponents were killed. The precedent-setting war-crimes prosecution of former Liberian leader Charles Taylor has complicated the departure of Mugabe’s regime.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group, a watchdog organization, said there was “a growing risk of a coup either before the runoff, in a preemptive move to deny Tsvangirai victory, or after a Tsvangirai win.”

Opposition lawmaker David Coltart said he believed there was a risk of a coup, but he added, “I think they’re intent on trying to give it some sort of fig leaf of legitimacy through an election.

“Their first prize is obviously votes in the ballot box to get Mugabe to win. Their Plan B, if they don’t feel that will happen, is that they will just blatantly rig the election. An openly declared coup would be very difficult for the region to stomach.”

The ZANU-PF runoff “campaign,” which is under the control of top military commanders, consists of ubiquitous newspaper advertising, state media propaganda and the violence against the opposition.

Witnesses and victims interviewed by The Times have named ruling party officials as helping oversee the violence, with beatings carried out mainly by mobs of ruling party youths.

It is unclear what effect the violence will have on the voter turnout. One aim seems to be to send a signal to voters that whatever they do, Tsvangirai will never rule, making voting for him futile and dangerous.

If the regime does hold on to power, it would be “catastrophic,” according to the ICG report. It says the economy’s decline would intensify, with more Zimbabweans fleeing the country, “while inflation, unemployment and the resultant massive suffering would increase.”

Even if it stays in power through a coup or election fraud, said the diplomat, “you have to ask yourself, ‘Well, then what do they do?’ They have no options for any sustainable situation here. They have no resources. There’s not a great deal left to loot. You can’t dig gold out of the ground without electricity. They’re completely isolated.”


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They beat him, but not into submission

August 7, 2008

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.

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.

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.”

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.

“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.

“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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

“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.

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.’ ”

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.

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.

“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.”

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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Flickering lights in Zimbabwe

September 10, 2008

The blogger calls himself a “fat white man” and jokes about the right way to approach a cordon of Zimbabwean riot police: Don’t wear an opposition T-shirt, or ask for the results of the recent one-man presidential runoff. Instead, greet them with a breezy “Good morning! How are you, sirs?”

“I note that there are no officers in the line, which is good as it means there’s nobody to order the cops to start hitting me,” he writes. “But then again if they do start hitting me there’s no one to tell them to stop.”

The “fat white man” is not just some cheeky cyberdissident – he’s a British diplomat named Philip Barclay. His blog is found on the official British Foreign Office website.

Barclay’s exhilaratingly undiplomatic https://blogs.fco.gov.uk/roller/harare, at https://blogs.fco.gov.uk/roller/harare/, veers from humor reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves books to bleak horror. Zimbabwe, he says, is a country where “good manners and repression go hand-in-hand.”

With most of Zimbabwe’s independent newspapers shut down by President Robert Mugabe’s authoritarian regime, bloggers and cyberactivists fill the vacuum. It’s a world peopled with intelligence agents from the old white-led Rhodesian government, pumping out news updates; fleeing journalists who have parachuted into the wide, blue freedom of the Internet; and emigres who left the country 10 or 15 years ago but can’t get it out of their systems. But the most compelling blogs are from the people who have stayed home.

There are those who write everything in red, capitalized italics, calling for the violent removal of Mugabe. There are whimsical letters from the bush. There’s poetry. And there’s more than the occasional outbreak of whining.

In short, it’s a world filled with as much paranoia, rumor, frustration, stoicism, humor, rage and wild hope as the country itself.

Bev Clark, who calls herself an “electronic activist” and helped found a website named kubatana.net, portrays Zimbabwe’s bizarre contradictions and numbing frustrations with wry, cynical humor that sometimes bubbles into anger.

Comrade Fatso, a lanky, dreadlocked Zimbabwean poet whose real name is Samm Farai Monro, elegantly captures the atmosphere of a country that is waiting, trapped, afraid.

Cathy Buckle, a 51-year-old divorcee and author who lost her farm in Mugabe’s land seizures, posts angry, poignant letters on cathybuckle.com about the bare supermarket shelves, the deprivations of Zimbabwe’s “Fourth World” conditions, and the Msasa tree leaves pattering on her roof, promising a new season and hope.

Kubatana.net, founded by Clark and her partner, Brenda Burrell, organizes protests and sends out newsletters and text messages to reach people in a country where only a few use the Internet. Other sites clip and disseminate news from foreign media, adding their own commentaries in garish fonts.

What shines through it all are the small, colorful transactions of life, like bright postage stamps winking from a mountain of brown-paper parcels.

Barclay writes about meeting Marita, a teenage orphan who says she has HIV. It is just after the government has lopped 10 zeros off the currency because of galloping hyperinflation:

“Marita reminds me that she has not yet eaten and needs $200,000,000,000 to do so. I give her two shiny little new $10 coins and explain that they are worth the same as two hundred billion old dollars. She clearly does not believe me and gives me a filthy look – the look one gives a man who cheats poor, sick girls – and stalks off.”

Some afternoons Clark and the other Kubatana activists turn up their music loud in their suburban Harare office. They play the Nigerian hip-hop artist Dr Alban – ” … freedom is our goal … ” – and sing their hearts out.

Clark cut her teeth as a white gay activist in the 1980s and ’90s, at a time when Mugabe called homosexuality “sub- animal behavior” and said gays and lesbians had no rights and should be arrested.

In the 1980s, when she published a gay and lesbian newsletter, Clark’s office was raided by about eight police officers searching for “pornographic materials,” which turned out to mean a booklet listing gay, lesbian and bisexual support groups.

These days, when worn down by the business of agitating for change, Clark retreats into a bubble bath in her home in Harare, the capital. That is, when there are any bubbles left in her bottle. Or any water in her tap.

She writes: “In no particular order, I’m fed up with: a) vendors selling me overpriced trays of eggs whilst I’m crossing the road; b) dead of night tsotsis (criminals) stealing telephone cables rendering all phones kaput; c) my hunting dog waking me up at 4am, 3 nights in a row; d) civil society fear merchants who say Don’t Do A Damned Thing, or we’ll provoke a state of emergency in Zimbabwe; e) Mugabe; f) waiting.”

The funny, angry woman of the Kubatana blog seems a little ironed down and formal in a phone interview. But Clark’s passion rises when talking about the need to jack open Zimbabwe’s democratic space. She has no illusions about the risks and difficulties involved, but can’t understand why Zimbabwean human rights groups release reports in Johannesburg or New York – anywhere but in Harare.

Sometimes her rubbish-strewn, potholed home city gets to her, but you get the sense she wouldn’t be comfortable anywhere more comfortable.

In his blog, Comrade Fatso calls Harare “our comedy-of-errors town,” a city full of lines snaking out of banks or supermarkets, depending on the season. To him, each line is “a frozen riot” and the city is stale with waiting.

He sits in a car one quiet winter’s day, the sun hot through the glass. At a nearby market, a car crashes into several market stalls, hitting some women. A mob quickly forms and beats the driver. Fatso watches with distaste, later pondering the incident on his blog.

“Zimbabweans often give out mob justice like food at a ZANU [Mugabe’s ruling party] rally,” he writes. “We tend to vent our life-anger onto a thief who dared to steal a bar of chocolate and a loaf of bread. We tend to leave the creators of our misery in the luxury of freedom.”

For a time, Zimbabweans dared hope that their waiting was over. After first-round presidential and parliamentary elections in March, in which the opposition scored more votes than ZANU-PF, people were electric with optimism, even as they feared it was too good to be true.

“We await the rigging. We await the victory. With a hesitant joy. And a bounce in our step,” wrote Comrade Fatso in the long wait before election results were finally released more than a month after the vote.

The fat white man got caught up in the optimism too. He described the mood in the Foreign Office blog. Before the March voting, Barclay and his driver, Elvis, sped around the country, observing. As he left one political meeting, a woman pointed and said: “That party has a fat white man. We should go to their rally.”

The political meetings involved dancing, chanting, speeches and deep ululation that set Barclay’s heart racing. On election night, he watched the count in a remote settlement called Bikisa, in Masvingo province, always a Mugabe stronghold. He assumed the big pile of votes was for Mugabe.

But he was wrong. The big pile was for opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

“I force myself to keep breathing steadily; fainting at this point would not become an officer of Her Majesty’s Government.”

But the hope – and Barclay’s levity – was not to last. Mugabe and his cronies and “securocrats” clung to power; the ruling party unleashed violence against the opposition.

On the day of the runoff election, everything was closed. Clark and her partner, Burrell, didn’t vote in the election, which Tsvangirai had boycotted because of the violence. Instead, they drove out looking at polling stations in suburban Harare.

With gangs of youth militias in the suburbs, Clark had a can of mace in her backpack, though she wasn’t sure what she would do if it was really needed.

“It made me feel a tiny bit safer.”

They decided to drop in on friends, Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlongu. In jail. The activists from Women of Zimbabwe Arise, arrested for a protest, had been in Chikurubi Female Prison for a month.

Inside the prison, it was a dusty 10-minute walk to see their friends, past lots of laundry drying out. They sat for half an hour on a rough wooden bench talking to Williams and Mahlongu.

Then they passed gifts through holes in the fence: an orange, potato chips, sweets and personal hygiene items. But the prison guard wouldn’t allow a jar of honey.

Later Clark took a bath, but she couldn’t relax, fuming at the fate of her friends.

“They’ve had enough of sleeping on a concrete floor,” she wrote on her blog. “They want to go home.”

Some of the loudest of the jostling cybervoices are in Zimbabwe’s distant diaspora. But Clark wishes Zimbabwean journalists running news websites from outside the country and cyberactivists would come home and force open a window from inside the country. She believes that Zimbabweans have to stand up for democracy and media freedom, and that the best place to do it is in Zimbabwe.

The place can look more frightening from outside, she said in the interview.

“I think that as Zimbabweans we have spent too much time accommodating this dictatorship one way or another. One of the things we have to address is this self-censorship.”

She laments in her blog that Zimbabweans sometimes give in to fear too easily, and she wonders “what it will take for Zimbabweans to rise up and liberate themselves.”

But as much as Zimbabweans live with fear and anger, writes the poet Comrade Fatso, they also live with hope. It soars or crashes on the wind of every rumor.

“We are so close to that sun on the horizon,” he writes. “I can almost see it through the dust. We need to walk together towards the sunset. We need to be crazy enough to keep hope alive.”


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Mugabe spies have a secret

November 20, 2008

The man is nervous. He’s from the “President’s Office,” and that doesn’t mean serving tea to Robert Mugabe. It’s Zimbabwe’s version of the KGB: the Central Intelligence Organization.

He says all his phones – cell and land-line – are bugged, so we’re meeting in secret at a house belonging to a go-between in suburban Harare. His voice is barely audible, and he can’t sit still. As loyalty to Mugabe wanes, disillusioned insiders like the CIO man are becoming more willing to speak out. Still, he’s worried that talking to a foreign journalist could land him in serious trouble.

In Zimbabwe, even the spies are watched.

I’m worried too, in case the meeting backfires. Mugabe’s regime routinely denies foreign journalists entry to Zimbabwe, so I have no option but to work here illegally, undercover. There’s always an element of risk.

The CIO casts a long shadow. Small, everyday encounters become fraught with fear. Common coincidences are magnified into something sinister. Everyone knows how the CIO guys work: You never notice them until you spot a car behind you, then drive around the block a few times and find it’s still there.

There are plenty of terrifying stories about what happens to the people who are arrested, ranging from lengthy interrogation to torture. So I’m a little taken aback by the man from the President’s Office. He turns out to be thirtysomething, educated, articulate and urbane. Had he been born in any other country, he might have found a career at a bank, a think tank, a law firm. Instead, he learned about dirty tricks and disenchantment.

For years, the Mugabe regime has used the CIO to undermine and frighten the opposition, keep an eye on journalists and neutralize threats. But these days the name President’s Office is a misnomer, says the senior officer, who, unsurprisingly, speaks on condition of anonymity. He estimates that 60% to 70% of CIO officers – all but the hard-line ideologues – no longer back Mugabe.

That the dark heart of Mugabe’s web of fear is abandoning him underscores how tenuous his grip on power has become.

Like most of the population in this country besieged by inflation of 231 million percent – from the starving rural unemployed to hungry soldiers to bureaucrats whose salaries don’t cover their bus fares – the CIO staffers want change.

“There are a lot of professional [CIO] people who feel opposed to what’s going on,” the senior officer says. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t conform, or don’t obey your instructions, see what I mean? It’s disgruntlement, not rebellion.

“The current system has ceased to be functional. When you come to that stage, you obviously want change. Service delivery is dismal. Education is worst affected. There are no drugs in public institutions,” he says, reeling off the problems like an opposition speechwriter.

CIO headquarters, a drab, nine-story red-brick building on Selous Avenue in central Harare, has many small windows, like eyes gazing at the city. Just walking by evokes a chill.

Members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change obsess about the organization. They avoid mention of meeting places in phone calls, talk in code, use encrypted e-mail and drive circuitous routes with an eye on the rear-view mirror.

Several years ago, MDC supporters said they were certain the party had been infiltrated by CIO spies determined to undermine the opposition by sowing discord among members.

They are right to be concerned, the CIO officer says. “Infiltration is the name of the game.”

He guffaws at the idea that the MDC might find that shocking. “It’s to be expected. It’s very normal.” His term for it is “information management.”

“With the opposition and some influential members of society, there is a standard procedure. It’s keeping an eye on everything they do. You want to know what’s happening and where, so that you can win.”

Likewise, he says, the opposition should expect plenty of dirty tricks in any power-sharing government.

If such a government comes to pass, that is. Even though Mugabe was forced into a power-sharing deal after African observers rejected the results of the June presidential election, it’s an idea that neither the regime nor the opposition is comfortable with, as witnessed in the tortuous negotiations ever since about who gets control of the economic posts and security forces.

Meanwhile, Mugabe holds on. The only solid obstacle he faces is of his own making: the economy, which is in such chaos that there’s not a lot of actual governing he can do.

The man from the CIO confirms that the agency set a trap for the former Roman Catholic archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, one of Mugabe’s most vociferous critics. A CIO camera was placed in Ncube’s bedroom last year, and he was filmed in bed with a married woman. Photos were splashed across the state-owned Herald newspaper, which said the film was made by a private detective hired by the woman’s husband. Ncube resigned and has been silent ever since.

“If you are not only outspoken but staunchly against the head of state, surely things can go wrong,” the CIO man says. “You should be on guard. When you shoot at someone, you can expect them to shoot back.”

Hard-liners in the agency were crowing about Ncube’s humiliation for days, the officer says.

“There was a kind of happiness that this outspoken priest had been exposed. For others, this didn’t move the economy one inch. It was just a stunt, something you would rejoice over for one hour. It didn’t achieve anything.”

The officer has enough education and seniority to put him above having to get his hands dirty, like the agents who interrogate and torture suspects. He’s polite, sophisticated and wears a crisp suit.

He joined the CIO because of political ambition. Now, with Mugabe fading, he fears that his career in the CIO might not get him far after all.

Slowly and cautiously, he is trying get a foot into the opposition camp as well, by leaking information to the MDC’s security wing through an intermediary. But it’s a nerve-racking business, given the ruling party’s predilection for watching its own as avidly as it watches the enemy.

In years past, the officer says, the CIO higher-ups saw opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai as a buffoon. They poked fun at his chubby cheeks and looked down on his lack of education. To them, he was no match for Mugabe, with his numerous degrees and stinging rhetoric.

But most people in the CIO don’t joke about Tsvangirai anymore. They poke fun at Mugabe.

“People talk openly [about it] in the organization. There are certain things you would not have said openly, like statements against his excellency the president. Ah, but these days, people even say that.

“They say the old man should go. They even use, in a derogatory way, the term mudhara. It means ‘old man,’ but it’s not a respectful word.”

Tsvangirai is “not seen as very bright, but he’s accepted because of the leadership change that everyone wants to see. There’s no alternative. He is the alternative to the system. By virtue of that, he’s accepted.”

During the elections this year, CIO officers cruised around Harare, the capital, in search of suspicious-looking foreigners. I picked up a tail near the U.S. Embassy shortly after the March 29 vote. To make sure, I pulled suddenly into a coffee shop parking lot, without using my turn signal.

The car screeched in behind me. I walked into the coffee shop. I had a coffee, peeked out, and the car was still there. I ordered more coffee and sipped it slowly. It was still there.

I dawdled on and on. It was getting late. The coffee shop was about to close. I decided to go to a supermarket, and trawl among the almost empty shelves. Then maybe I could go somewhere for dinner. But where next, if he was still following me?

My tail, however, had a short attention span. He was gone by the time I left the coffee shop.

The CIO has always been one of the best-funded agencies. Regular police might struggle to find fuel for cars or charge sheets or typewriters that work, but the CIO has computers and reliable transportation.

“If you compare it with other ministries, you might say that the organization is well resourced. But if you compare 2000 and 2008, you will see that they [resources] are depleted,” the officer says.

“You start having situations where you are fighting for resources. We are looking at a situation where you are supposed to do A, B and C in a specific time. But where there are no resources, you can’t do A, B and C. What happens is compromised or half-baked information management. You end up coming up with a more crude than refined process.”

He sees the violence unleashed during the recent elections as primitive, crude and counterproductive. The so-called securocrats, he says, “are not so intellectually gifted; they’re shortsighted.”

“It’s not easy to align yourself with a diabolical or cruel way of doing things.”

When he joined the CIO, he was hoping for a speedy political trajectory in the ruling ZANU-PF party – and by that measure he has been successful. But he’s come to despise the deadening political conformity and stifling of criticism in the party.

To him that’s the systemic flaw that is killing Zimbabwe: the crushing of ideas.

“What has always happened – which I think is the weakness in the system – is that when a decision is taken, wrongly or rightly, you will have to end up conforming if you want to remain part of the group.”

So in public, he remains part of the system. But not in his heart.


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Hunting, gathering and starving in rural Zimbabwe

December 3, 2008

The child’s name is Godknows, and his mother smiles softly when she explains the choice: Only God knows whether he will live or die.

“I’m leaving everything in God’s hands because the child is always ill,” she whispers.

Godknows is 2 but looks like a frail 6-month-old baby, wrists and ankles like twigs, dark hollows under his solemn eyes, sores on his face. He flops in his mother’s arms like an exhausted old man, a victim of Zimbabwe’s silent hunger crisis.

The twin miseries of crop failure and economic collapse have left Zimbabwe’s villages without food. Millions survive on nothing but wild fruit, and many have died.

There are no official statistics. But ask people here in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland South province whether they know anyone who died of hunger recently, and the answer is nearly always yes. Sometimes it’s four or six people in the last couple of weeks. Sometimes they just say “plenty.”

“Children are dying out in the bush,” one foreign doctor says, on condition of anonymity. “We are all guarded. We have to keep quiet or else we’ll be kicked out” by the government.

The crisis has been exacerbated by President Robert Mugabe’s decision in June to suspend humanitarian aid during the run-up to his one-man presidential runoff. The long-ruling Mugabe, stunned when he won fewer votes than opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the first round in March, accused aid agencies of supporting the opposition and didn’t lift the ban until August. Critics say the regime, which has a history of denying food to opposition areas, was using hunger as a political tool to force people to vote for Mugabe.

In past years, groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Zimbabwean rights group Solidarity Peace Trust have reported that the Grain Marketing Board, the state monopoly responsible for distribution of maize, the nation’s staple, has routinely denied food to opposition supporters. But this year, there is virtually no grain from the board – and in many areas, no humanitarian aid either.

“The food always ends up in the hands of ZANU-PF,” says villager Solomon Nsinga, 66, referring to Mugabe’s ruling party. “The guys in charge of distribution are ZANU-PF. This is where the problem is. ZANU-PF gets it first.”

(The locations of the Matabeleland South villages have not been disclosed, to protect the identities of villagers, who fear repercussions for speaking out.)

Nsinga says he’s lost count of how many people have died in his village.

“There are plenty of people who have died this year. Plenty people,” he says. “They are dying a lot more than usual. This is not normal.

“I feel angry, sad.” He sighs and pauses. “I don’t know what to feel.”

With the hunger crisis in the rural areas and a cholera epidemic raging in urban areas, former President Carter, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Graca Machel, wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela, tried to visit Zimbabwe a week and a half ago to report on the humanitarian situation. But they were denied visas by Mugabe’s regime.

Nearly 5 million people desperately need food aid, but the hunger is expected to worsen. The World Food Program said recently that there were no funds for food distribution in the months of most severe hunger, January and February, because of a lack of donations. With a funding shortfall of $140 million, the U.N. agency already has cut rations in the food aid being distributed now.

One agency, CARE, reached only half its 500,000 intended aid recipients last month, citing bureaucratic hurdles and the paralysis of Zimbabwe’s currency and banking system.

McDonald Lewanika of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition says U.N. reports don’t reflect the scale of the crisis.

“People have been reduced to hunters and gatherers who have to look for wild food to survive,” he says.

He recently traveled to Wedza, a town only 60 miles from the capital, Harare. “You see people fighting with each other and even with wild animals like wart hogs just to take some food back to their children,” he says.

In the village where Godknows lives, six people died of hunger in October.

“Three were children aged about 8 or 10. The others were aged about 60. They were just buried in the village. They were living on wild berries. There was no food, other than wild fruits,” says Godknows’ mother, Phumuzile Moyo, 21. Her village has had one food handout, from World Vision, but only the most vulnerable people were helped, about a third of the population of 50.

Moyo got a food handout, but her son, who is HIV-positive, was already so frail that he continued to go downhill. She took him to a clinic, where he is getting treatment.

People search for scraps in garbage dumps, working shoulder-to-shoulder with baboons. Young men throng frantically at the entrances of dumps, dashing up to trash-laden pickup trucks, tearing bags down from their loads and ripping them open.

Everyone has a desperate story, even people seen as “privileged,” like soldiers.

An army lance corporal, hitchhiking on the road to Binga, in western Zimbabwe, says his monthly pay, which is the equivalent of less than 50 cents at the black-market rate, buys virtually nothing. His parents have no food, and he can’t help them.

“I went to see my parents, and they said their son doesn’t love them anymore. When I got there, they were just sitting there with nothing. They said, ‘What have you brought us?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ It was very painful. I feel sad!” he says, but the words come out sounding angry.

In a Matabeleland South clinic, a woman with a scarf on her head watches over her malnourished granddaughter. The child’s limbs are swollen; she wears a lacy blue and white party dress meant for happier times.

The woman, Dorothy Mkwananzi, 66, stares blankly into the distance as she murmurs in numb despair.

“We don’t know how things are going to end,” she says. “We just feel helpless. We can’t even help ourselves. I think this hunger will just go on and on. No matter how we feel, there’s nothing we can do. We’re only human beings.”

When the food aid does not come, people get desperate. Everyone watches the wild fruit trees, so as to be there first when the fruit is ripe enough to eat.

People in Simo Mpofu’s village waited and waited, but no food trucks came.

“A lot of people have died in our village due to hunger,” she says. “A lot of people are sick because of hunger. It’s worse than I’ve ever seen.”

Mpofu relates the story of one woman in her village, with three children to feed, who faced a terrible choice early in November.

Unable to find any food for days on end, the woman went into the bush and carefully selected the fruit she knew to be poisonous. Then she took the fruit home, cooked it and fed it to her children and herself.

The four were buried together. Everyone in the village went to the funeral. Then they went out to watch the wild fruit trees, waiting for the fruit to ripen.


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Gems in sacks, bullets in backs

December 4, 2008

Ronald seems a sober, respectable, church-on-Sunday type. Not the kind you’d find prospecting for diamonds here in Zimbabwe’s wild east, a world of swaggering foreigners, dirty money and shoot-to-kill police. Not the sort who’d utter movie-script lines like this one: “You can make $15,000 or $20,000 in 30 minutes. But you can die within seconds.”

Ronald, like the rest of Zimbabwe, has caught Africa’s nastiest ailment – diamond fever.

Sleepy towns such as Mutare have blinked awake to find their quiet streets buzzing with opportunists and black marketeers. Every day, illicit miners show up at the hospital with gaping bullet wounds and flimsy excuses for how they got them. Characters straight out of “Blood Diamond” cruise like sharks.

But the biggest sharks are nowhere to be seen: Officials of President Robert Mugabe’s regime are looting the diamonds, industry sources and members of Zimbabwe’s security services say.

Not only are they personally enriching themselves with one of the few natural resources still left in this ruined country, party fat cats may be finding life support in the diamond riches, Western diplomats and analysts fear, and gaining one more motive to cling to power.

“I think the political implications are very interesting,” said a diplomat based in Harare, the capital. “Right now, the government’s getting very little. If it can regularize this in some way, it could really prop things up for a while. It could give them some time to pursue their interests and just keep going.”

The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid political problems with Zimbabwe’s government. Others who were willing to discuss the diamond trade declined to be identified for fear of repercussions.

Industry and security sources say government leaders have their own syndicates to dig and trade diamonds on the black market.

“The diamond game is the filthiest game in town and everyone’s into it,” says one source familiar with the gem industry. “It’s not even semi- organized chaos. It’s a bunch of thieves who backstab each other.

“A lot of leaders of the political regime are involved in trading. They have their own diggers and traders. But it’s all to their personal account. They’ve all got a vested interest in chaos.”

Regime cracks down

Diplomats, industry sources and some nongovernmental agencies believe the Marange field here could be one of the most significant diamond discoveries in decades.

Mugabe’s regime is certainly behaving as if it is. In mid-November, the government sent in the military to crack down on unsanctioned miners. Soldiers even fired on miners from helicopters, local sources say. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change says nearly 140 people have been killed.

One insider close to the ruling party said the scope of the crackdown was a measure of how significant the diamonds were to the regime.

“I don’t think they would expend such resources if there was not something significant there,” he says.

A prison official in Mutare said top figures in the ruling ZANU-PF party and security officials are running the illegal diamond trade here.

“The people in the police, prisons service, army and CIO [Central Intelligence Organization] have got groups of people who are working for those lieutenants, known as syndicates,” says the official. “Usually these high-ranked officers in the armed forces are working for the ministers, governors and other ZANU-PF bigwigs.”

The exploration rights at the Marange field were initially held by a subsidiary of the diamond giant De Beers, which let its license expire in early 2006. The rights were then taken up by a British company, African Consolidated Resources.

In late 2006, a rush began, driven by the large quantities of diamonds close to the surface – making the site almost unique. The government promptly evicted the company in much the same manner it evicted white farmers from their land in 2000. Today, the site is ostensibly being developed by the state-owned Zimbabwe Mining Development Corp., but most of the gems find their way onto the black market.

The British company continues to pursue a legal battle in the High Court over the right to mine the area, but in cases involving property rights in the past, High Court judges – appointed by Mugabe – have sided with the government.

Almost irresistible

In a country where the paralyzed economy offers few opportunities, diamonds are almost irresistible. Ronald, 31, who had given up working for an insurance firm for black-market currency dealing, was drawn into illegal mining. He gave only his first name, fearing possible jail.

Ronald says he saw five unsanctioned miners, including two women, shot to death by police on the diamond field late last month as they fled carrying large sacks of soil. One of those killed was a policeman mining illegally.

“It’s like war,” Ronald says.

At dawn that same day, he had been in the diamond field filling bags with dirt to carry off and later sieve. “We heard a gunshot. It was very close. Then everybody, including myself, started to run, carrying our bags of soil. We were running and running… . We were more than 50 and they were firing shots at us.”

They scattered, but Ronald didn’t want to drop his sack, thinking he might have a gigantic diamond. Finally, exhausted, he ditched it to save himself.

“That was the day I thought, ‘Maybe this is the end of my life.’ ” Yet he went back in.

It is filthy, back-breaking work, a shock after his peaceful insurance job and black-market money dealing. The hastily dug tunnels can be deep, and they often collapse, burying prospectors alive.

Opinions differ on the significance of the Marange field. Some put its worth in billions of dollars annually; others estimate this at under $50 million.

Local industry figures say that in the last 12 months, high-quality diamonds have increasingly been turning up. The Reserve Bank chief, Gideon Gono, said last month that more than 500 syndicates were operating in Marange, and estimated that the government was losing $1.2 billion in diamond revenue every month.

But a Belgian-based diamond expert scoffed at the figure – equivalent to global diamond production – and said 90% of the gems were low-quality industrial diamonds.

‘Dangerous’

Brilliant flame trees line the streets of Mutare, like dawdling women bearing scarlet parasols. Intelligence men are everywhere. Foreigners brag loudly and flirt with local women in restaurants and bars. A car draws up and a plump fellow nods hello.

“Ah, things are tough, eh? Things are dangerous,” he says, grinning slyly. Pause. “You wanna buy dah-mons?”

It’s a place of treachery and swirling rumor: People talk of a $5-million diamond found here recently, or the woman who made her fortune trading cabbages for diamonds.

When the rush started, miners were loath to leave their diggings even for water: It was common for them to swap a diamond for a bottle of water, or so the story goes.

Industry sources whisper the names of notorious international diamond dealers said to have fingers in the Marange pie.

The fenced area in Marange operated by the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corp. is known locally as “Mai Mujuru’s Breast,” meaning the breast of Mama Mujuru, a reference to the country’s corpulent vice president, Joyce Mujuru. You need just a short time there, people tell you breathlessly, and you’ll have a diamond the size of a bird’s egg.

“It’s a ZANU-PF place,” says opposition lawmaker Pishai Muchauraya. “No one is allowed to get in there. If you’re a special person, you will go there and you will be allowed just 20 minutes. That’s where you can get clear diamonds.”

But Ronald, the illegal miner, says he paid a bribe to a policeman to spend several hours at Mai Mujuru’s Breast. He got only one tiny diamond, which he sold for $150.

A $30,000 deal

Itai, 28, got into trading diamonds 18 months ago. He smuggles them in his mouth across the border to sell to Lebanese and Israeli dealers in Manica, Mozambique. He’s bought two houses and five cars. Three months ago, he says, he and his aunt traded a clear 30-carat stone as big as his thumbnail for $30,000 in a hotel-room deal with an Israeli.

He says most of the illegal miners are well educated: “They’re teachers, nurses, soldiers, policemen and civil servants.”

The prison official said the real aim of the recent crackdown was to give the syndicates operated by top ruling party figures free rein.

“In effect, these operations are not to restore order but to make sure [the syndicates] can take the diamonds,” the official says. “But what is devastating us is that they’re actually killing people. They’re shooting to kill.”

Political violence and power struggles in Manicaland province, where the Marange diamonds are found, suggest how important the area is to Mugabe and ZANU-PF. Manicaland was one of the areas most severely hit by political violence after the elections in March, which saw ZANU-PF lose the Mutare council, the mayoral post and 20 parliamentary seats there to the Movement for Democratic Change.

Although Zimbabwe’s diamonds are not technically “blood diamonds,” or ones that fuel wars, they are bloody in nature.

‘I might die’

Isaac, 38, and Richard, 32, brought their brother Cledious to the hospital after he was shot in the back while mining illegally. The three brothers and two cousins were in a tunnel at about 6 a.m. when police threw in a tear-gas canister.

“We started running away. He was the last to come out. We heard a gunshot and we looked back and saw our brother on the ground,” Isaac says. Police took him to their camp and dumped him, unattended and bleeding profusely.

“The base wasn’t guarded,” Richard says. “I went in to collect him. We carried him five kilometers [about three miles] to our base camp. He was crying, saying, ‘I might die.’ ”

The brothers assured him that he would live. In their hearts, though, they fear he faces a slow and painful death.

But seeing fortunes being made all around them, they won’t give up mining, even if their brother dies.

“If one person is killed,” Richard says, “there’s more for the rest.”


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Amid the chaos, cholera gains a foothold

December 11, 2008

A bony limb flops from the wheelbarrow in limp resignation. A head lolls amid the pile of blankets. A woman is trundling her elderly mother home from a clinic to die.

In Zimbabwe’s cholera- ravaged townships, the dying make their final journey home in wheelbarrows and pushcarts, sent away from clinics by nurses too overworked and underpaid to care much about who survives.

One 71-year-old man, Tarcisius Nerutanga, had to carry his dying 27-year-old son, Allan, home over the weekend on his back. When Nerutanga was summoned to the clinic in Budiriro township, he found Allan dumped on a wooden bench outside, racked by severe vomiting and diarrhea.

“They didn’t say anything. They just said, ‘Take him home,’ ” Nerutanga said, as his wife, Loveness, sat on the concrete floor in their tiny room weeping silently. “I knew he was in a terrible state. I didn’t think he’d survive.”

Allan Nerutanga died Monday.

Zimbabwe’s cholera epidemic has killed at least 775 people and sickened more than 16,000, the United Nations reported Wednesday.

Under normal circumstances, the waterborne disease is relatively easy to treat. In Zimbabwe, it is spreading uncontrolled amid the country’s economic collapse and political turmoil as the 28-year-old regime of President Robert Mugabe clings to power after disputed elections.

A tangle of problems makes the disease intractable: decaying water system infrastructure; burst sewage pipes left unrepaired; government failure to buy water treatment chemicals or collect garbage; a lack of nurses because of low wages; a shortage of medicines; poverty and declining literacy because of the education system’s collapse.

The accumulation of woes leads many observers to fear that a defeatable disease that normally ebbs and flows with the seasons may remain a serious problem for a long time to come.

“It’s down to the political situation. If they don’t collect the refuse, if they don’t repair the sewage, if they don’t provide water, it’s going to get worse. It’s a mammoth task, repairing those things,” said Douglas Muzanenhamo of the Combined Harare Residents Assn., a rights advocacy group.

“Without doing that, people will go back to the same situation, back to where this thing has come from,” he said. “And they’ll get sick again.”

In one area of Budiriro, a township hard-hit by cholera, swallows swooped in exhilarating arcs over the stinking green pools of sewage alongside the streets. Children with soccer balls made from plastic bags played in the streets, leaping across channels of raw waste.

There was a makeshift latrine nearby for the whole neighborhood, behind a sagging plastic wall. In the same field people had dug shallow brackish wells, where they fetch water on the frequent occasions when the taps don’t work. The water was cloudy; iridescent green flies buzzed around the edges.

In some areas of the township, said Muzanenhamo, there was no tap water from August on. In others there has been no running water for two years.

Even in Harare, the nation’s capital, the battle against cholera is plagued by shortages, including a lack of medical personnel. In the only major public hospital still functioning in the city, a senior physician said there were six doctors of the required complement of 22 and 12 nurses of a required 100. Four of the eight wards are open. Most medical staff have gone to Australia, Britain and neighboring African countries in search of better salaries.

The physician, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals by government officials, is preparing to leave soon.

“The government won’t be able to control it [cholera]. They’ve tried,” he said. “No one is keen to deliver services.”

He said many patients died of cholera because there were too few nurses and too few of the needed saline drips. A severely ill patient needs to receive drips every 30 minutes to survive. “They just die from dehydration,” he said.

Patients are well aware of the need to “thank” medical personnel with bribes, he said, to get services and medications, such as the antiretroviral drugs used to treat AIDS.

“This is now a very corrupt country,” the physician said. “Myself, I don’t ask for money. They actually know they have to give me money, not just a verbal thank you.”

In the Budiriro clinic, Rudolf Mheyamwa sought desperately for help. His family has no tap in their single-room home, so they were forced to use well water. His wife and three of his four children had contracted cholera.

Beauty Mheyamwa lay helpless in a clinic bed, tears pouring down her cheeks, as her husband tried to save their oldest girl, 13-year-old Romana. The girl’s condition was growing worse after she had lain all night in a nearby bed without a drip. When Rudolf Mheyamwa begged nurses to replenish it, they bustled past.

“The nurses just said, ‘We’ll do it in the morning.’ They were busy,” said Mheyamwa, 38, a fisherman. “There was no way you could convince them to do anything because they’d respond rudely. They were just saying, ‘We’re not working for one person, there are so many cases,’ as they just rushed by.

“I blame the government,” he said. “I feel angry, but there’s nothing I can do.”

A clinic nurse said the pay was so low that most of the nursing staff were working only out of dedication. She spoke on condition of anonymity, also fearing reprisal.

The clinic’s nurses staged a sit-in for 10 days ending last week to protest their monthly salaries of 5 million Zimbabwean dollars each – the equivalent of 14 U.S. cents.

Although the sit-in was over, the nurse who was interviewed remained at home, as did some of her colleagues. She said her feet were too sore to work.

“We are overworked,” she said. “At times you are very stressed. A patient can come and vomit in your face and you can get infected.”

When she arrives at work, she said, 15 to 20 worried relatives crowd around, demanding treatment for their loved ones.

“They get angry. We tell them to cool off,” she said.

The burden of caring for the dying thus often falls to the families.

In the last hours of his son’s life, Tarcisius Nerutanga lifted Allan’s frail body onto his knee, hugged him and begged him to cling to life. Loveness Nerutanga kept feeding and cleaning Allan, silently praying. Nothing helped.

Allan Nerutanga died grieving that his life was over before he could rescue his parents from their grinding poverty, his mother recalled.

“He just said, ‘Mom, we’re a laughingstock. We die a laughingstock.’ ”


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Mugabe’s rule is icily calibrated

December 14, 2008

For a very literal example of Robert Mugabe’s staying power, look no further than a recent crisis summit of southern African leaders designed to settle the political impasse that has seen the longtime Zimbabwean leader stubbornly cling to the presidency.

The leaders wanted him to leave the room so they could deliberate in private. He refused.

Between their misguided politeness and his famous capacity to intimidate, the presidents meekly backed down. Mugabe stayed.

Be it with his fellow African leaders, the West or the Zimbabwean opposition, the 84-year-old Mugabe has outmaneuvered – and outlasted – his critics for more than a quarter of a century, through a careful calibration of the international reaction to and domestic effect of his actions. As close as the end sometimes seems, Mugabe has managed to survive.

To help understand his staying power, one need only rewind to the 1980s and the massacres of his early years in power, when he was a conquering hero who had thrown out the white minority regime of Ian Smith.

The name of the murderous operation, Gukurahundi, was as lyrical as a haiku: the wind that blows away the chaff before the spring rains.

Mugabe’s political opponents were the chaff. The spring rains were supposed to signify the golden era of a one-party state (or rather, a one-man state).

Western leaders and news media ignored the massacres of the “dissidents” by the army’s crack Five Brigade in Matabeleland province in southern Zimbabwe. Some estimates put the dead at 20,000.

Mugabe drew his most important lesson from the West’s blase reaction, analysts believe: that there’s a level of “acceptable” violence that will escape international condemnation, but still destroy any threat to his power.

“He’s never, ever been frightened of war,” said analyst Tony Reeler of the Research & Advocacy Unit, an independent think tank in Harare, the capital. Mugabe learned that he could get away with “subliminal terror” that would not trigger international intervention, he said.

“It’s just below the threshold that upsets people, and it’s deliberately so,” he said.

“Deliberate” is a word that defines Mugabe. Bony and severe, he is a teetotaler who freezes debate in Cabinet sessions with silence, former associates say.

His family history may help explain his chilly, calculating nature. His father abandoned the family after the death of Mugabe’s older brother, the father’s favorite. His mother was a strict, pious woman who believed that God had great plans for her son, a bookish loner with no real friends, after a Jesuit priest at the local school said the boy was destined to be a leader.

His destiny proved to be a ruthless one.

The shadow of the Gukurahundi campaign has haunted Zimbabwe since the early 1980s. Mugabe repeatedly revived its message that opponents would be killed or tortured. But those who felt the rushing “wind” that was Gukurahundi needed no reminding.

“It’s painful to remember. It’s a story told in blood,” said a 61-year-old retired military officer who was attached to the Five Brigade when the unit “cleansed” villages in 1982, arresting the men, interrogating and torturing them to identify opposition guerrillas. Like others cited in this report, he spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing repercussions.

He said he saw thousands of people killed. Women were shut into thatched huts and burned alive. Even the children were targets.

“They would take these young boys about a year old and they would say, ‘This one will grow up to be a dissident,’ and they would smash his head against a tree, or against a wall, or against the ground.”

Others who were behind Gukurahundi are now among Mugabe’s closest and most trusted allies.

Emerson Mnangagwa was head of security when the massacres started and is now Mugabe’s heir apparent. He was succeeded as security chief in the 1980s by Sydney Sekeremayi, now defense minister. The Five Brigade was commanded by Perence Shiri, the current air force commander.

Like Mugabe, all are obsessed with hanging on to their assets and avoiding prosecution. Their only guarantee of that is clinging to power.

Mugabe has rekindled the terror whenever he has perceived a political threat. He unleashed violence in elections in 2000 and 2002 after the rise of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. He seized land from white farmers beginning in 2000 because many supported the MDC. In 2005, he launched Murambatsvina, or Operation Clean Out the Filth, evicting 700,000 urban people in MDC strongholds from their homes.

With every operation, he grew less popular among the people – but more feared. It seemed that he no longer could distinguish between the two.

On election day in March of this year, Mugabe affected the air of a leader so popular that he needn’t concern himself with the opposition. He had shown extraordinary energy in the campaign, blitzing several rallies a day clad in his favorite election garb: a peaked cap and a yellow, lime green or red suit decorated with his own grinning face.

“Why should I cheat?” he said, fixing the camera with a beady eye after casting his vote. “The people are there supporting us, day in, day out. The moment people stop supporting you, then that’s the moment you should quit politics.”

After his shocking defeat by MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the first-round presidential vote, he blamed traitors in his ZANU-PF party, according to several party sources. Enraged, he accused top ZANU-PF figures of “de-campaigning,” or campaigning against him.

ZANU-PF is now so deeply divided that many would prefer Tsvangirai to Mugabe, according to a senior party official. The president could face a resolution at the annual party conference this week forcing him to retire by the end of next year.

But Mugabe is cunning in the face of setbacks. After the March election upset, he told military and ruling party leaders that he was ready to step down, according to numerous party sources. “It was done strategically,” a ZANU-PF insider said. “It was to jolt people into action, and it had the desired effect. There was a lot of lethargy and despondency in the party at the time, and people thought Tsvangirai was coming in. Mugabe told some people he was willing to concede defeat and this jolted them into action.

“These are people who depend on Mugabe for their own political existence. Without Mugabe, they’re nothing. They realized they could not afford to let Mugabe concede, for their own reasons.”

So, in the most recent echo of Gukurahundi, the military and war veterans recruited youthful militants and set up hundreds of militia bases, beating thousands of MDC supporters, burning their houses and torturing and killing opposition activists. At least 180 people died, though the figure could be higher because much of the violence occurred in remote rural areas out of sight of human rights groups and journalists.

Tsvangirai pulled out of the second round in June because of the violence, and African observers condemned the result.

After his electoral setbacks, Mugabe initially seemed like a badly mauled lion, unlikely to survive a night of circling hyenas. In July, when he was trapped by TV cameras at an African Union conference in Cairo, video of his rattled, seething responses surfaced almost instantly on YouTube.

Yet since then, he has pulled back from the brink and, amazingly, remains in power, still recognized as president by African leaders despite his lack of a legitimate mandate.

Even opponents grudgingly concede that it has been a masterful recovery. Mugabe has taken advantage of the jumble of motives among ZANU-PF figures, buying loyalty by doling out rewards such as farms and benefits. None of them is clean, so all feel vulnerable.

“There are some people who are just in it for the money and other people who might fear retribution if the opposition party comes into power. There are some people who believe that for ideological reasons Mugabe is the best person to lead the country. And you have other people steeped in the liberation struggle who don’t believe they can let ZANU-PF decline,” said the ZANU-PF insider. “You have a mixed bag of people with the same goal.”

Southern African leaders meeting as the Southern African Development Community have the job of settling the crisis, but Mugabe has cleverly played on the feelings of the old boys’ club of African liberation movements, most of which see the rise of a strong opposition as an unwelcome precedent in the region.

“He’s managed to get SADC to endorse his position,” the ZANU-PF insider said. “There’s still this belief at all costs that liberation movements cannot be replaced.”

Many analysts believe the regime is dying. But it’s all in slow motion, like a protracted death scene in a bad movie.

The victims of the Gukurahundi campaign are waiting.

Solomon Nsingo’s wife was bayoneted to death by the Five Brigade in front of the couple’s four children.

“I think about her all the time,” he said, “at night and in the day.”

He wants Mugabe to pay. “He killed my wife. How can I ever forgive him for that?”


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Caught between hope and fear in Zimbabwe

December 26, 2008

When Asiatu thinks about having her first child, she wipes her hands over her face, as if washing away bad memories.

When Junica Dube thinks about giving birth again, she rests her hands on her belly, as still and silent as a statue.

The story of two babies, to be born in a new year, should be a joyful one. But their mothers do not smile.

Dube’s baby will be the first to arrive, in January. Last year, she spent four days in labor, in a hospital where nothing worked and the nurses scolded her for crying out in pain. Her firstborn son lived just a few minutes. He died with no name.

Asiatu’s baby is expected in May. Pretty and slender, with the same thin wrists and sad eyes as Dube, she doesn’t know who the father is. All she knows is that he isn’t the man she loved, the man she lost.

Haunted by their fears, the only thing that keeps these two going is a luminous thread of hope, looping forward against all odds into the darkness that is Zimbabwe, like a firefly fluttering out of reach.

The story of the two women, and the two babies yet to be born, is the story of Zimbabwe’s violent journey between hope and fear this last year.

*

It’s September. I’m running down a dusty Harare street. The frightened slap-slap of my feet joins an orchestra of thumping shoes, a crowd running away.

Everyone is scared.

Part of it is pounding herd fear. But not far behind come our pursuers, a mob of young thugs for the ruling ZANU-PF party, hurling rocks.

As I run across a road called Rotten Row and pull around a corner out of the danger zone, a couple of old men laugh at me, and the idea that this 5-foot-tall white woman would come to their country in the state it’s in. “Look at the murungu!” they say, using the Shona word for a white. “Hey, white lady! Don’t you know? This is Zimbabwe!”

I slap-slap for another half block before slowing down, feeling slightly foolish.

When this day began, the sun was warm; people danced and sang. They believed that President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe for 28 years, was finally going to agree to share power six months after voters handed him a stunning defeat. I perched on a precarious rock to see the singing crowd, a forest of red-and-white opposition T-shirts, swaying in hypnotic rhythm.

Everyone was smiling.

Then she appeared at the foot of my perch, a sunny girl of 21 with a smile so wide I didn’t recognize her at first. The last time I saw her, she was crying.

Asiatu.

I jumped down and she introduced me to her mother. And then I watched her dive back into the choppy, joyful sea of people.

It was the only time I saw Asiatu really smile.

But then fights erupted between opposition supporters and a load of ZANU-PF reinforcements who had arrived after the power-sharing deal was signed. Rocks were hurled; T-shirts were torn. Hope evaporated.

Asiatu saw the crowds of people running away, and ran too.

*

When I first meet Asiatu, an opposition activist, in July, she’s been imprisoned for nearly two months in a ZANU-PF militia base, a rambling old farmhouse with a thatched roof outside Harare. She has to call her captors “comrades.”

It’s just after the second round of the presidential vote, and Mugabe’s campaign of violence, designed to reverse his poor first-round result in March, is still at full throttle.

Asiatu has seen his supporters kill people at the base, stoning them with bricks. She fears she could be killed too, if her full name is published.

When she’s not cleaning or cooking, she’s forced to sing ZANU-PF songs for hours on end. By turns bored and terrified, she is allowed out of the base for only a couple of hours each day to do family chores.

I meet her during one of her brief stints of freedom.

When I ask about her story, her face crumples and she starts to weep. She whispers that she’s raped daily by five men.

I hug her as her body shakes with sobs.

*

The year in Zimbabwe began with soaring expectations, like a kite on a wind: People were sure of a change. Then it plunged into despair, as if someone had shot the fragile paper-and-wood construction from the sky. Most of the time, though, people are so preoccupied with the grind of just surviving that change seems a quixotic dream.

As I’ve traveled across Zimbabwe over the last two years, I’ve met people in moments of tragic upheaval. I tell their stories and go my way. Finding them later is often difficult. But if and when I do, things have usually gone downhill.

People don’t fit their trousers anymore. Skinny limbs swim in their clothes like twigs tossed into a sack. In Harare, ragged beggar girls dash between the cars, palms open in supplication, dwarfed by the babies they carry on their backs. A mother sits on a dusty curb, her toddler’s belly distended. Dilapidated pickup trucks plow between the potholes, with people crammed onto the back like sheep going to slaughter.

On a November day, an old man’s rattling 1962 bicycle tells its own story: Its tires no longer exist. Instead, he’s tied on bits of scrap rubber with any rubber strap, string or wire he can find.

By the highways you see people trudging steadily, their plastic sandals worn paper thin, their ancient T-shirts reduced to a net of holes. They scavenge whatever they can find. The grains of corn that scatter from passing trucks are carefully collected for the day’s one meal.

I often think about Jane Sibanda, a 70-year-old woman I met last year near Lupane village in southern Zimbabwe. She was embarrassed to have to beg food from her neighbors, so she’d wait until hunger clawed at her insides like an insatiable beast. The food situation was terrible then.

But this year’s hunger is much worse. People are dying in rural villages and being buried there, with no count of the dead ever made. Perhaps she died too. I try to trace her, but fail.

Last month, on a deserted track in a dry, forgotten corner of western Zimbabwe, two old women and a man plod along carrying heavy bags. Heads bowed, they don’t even hope for a lift, for drivers usually ask for money. I tell my friend, who’s driving, to stop. The women’s faces are streaming with sweat. One carries a panting red hen. They say they have about 25 miles more to walk. Perhaps they’re exaggerating?

But it turns out to be 36 miles – what would have been a three-day march on a stony track.

When they get out, they lightly clap their palms together, in Zimbabwe’s gentle thank-you gesture. I meet the older woman’s gaze for a long moment. She has tears in her eyes.

*

Driving through the crowded township of Mufakose one warm evening after ZANU-PF’s loss in the first-round elections, I pause to drop someone off. A crowd of young men catches sight of me, and the shout goes up, ”Murungu! Murungu!” They throng around the car, reaching, shaking hands and laughing.

“This is the new Zimbabwe! The new Zimbabwe!” they yell. And it almost seems true.

But by nightfall, I hear that intelligence agents are raiding hotels and arresting journalists for working without accreditation. It’s started.

A few days later, I meet some opposition activists in a dark car. They’re so afraid you can almost smell it in their pores. They describe being hunted down in their villages by ZANU-PF militias with AK-47s. On their foreheads, beads of sweat glisten in the soft green light of the mobile phone I’m using as a flashlight to take notes.

Week by week, the violence escalates. One late July night, I get a text message from an opposition man I’ve met only once: “Pliz help me, my life is in danger.” I call, but can’t get through. I hit redial again and again.

Every day in a well-to-do Harare neighborhood, I see a group of exhausted-looking gardeners, landscaping a garden. When I talk to them in the lush, serene surroundings, their tale is surreal.

Evenings, in their township, they’re rounded up by ruling party youth militias, forced to dance, sing liberation songs and beat people all night long.

Sometimes they beat their victims to death. Then the next day, it’s off to work by 8, laying tiles in neat circles, placing elegant statues in pretty corners, building ponds and water features in someone else’s garden.

*

There are luxurious islands in the violence. One day in June, I walk past a long, black Mercedes into a Harare restaurant where I have a lunch meeting with one of the ZANU-PF militia base commanders. It’s warm in the restaurant garden; a flutter of tiny, colorful honeyeaters sips nectar from the flowers.

He’s dressed in a casual fawn-colored outfit with a cap and orders a T-bone steak, well done. He’s polite and refined and speaks so softly that at times he’s inaudible. He holds his teacup in long, fine fingers, sipping delicately.

Even more delicate: the subject of the election violence. We wend in wary circles toward a subject he seems keen to avoid. He calls it “re-education” and says it’s necessary.

He speaks in a singsong tone, sawing methodically at his meat.

“Now, what the government is doing, because of the utterances of the West, the government is saying: ‘You see, you’re forgetting that we got this country by shedding blood. You think it can be returned with a ballpoint pen. This is not going to happen.’ ”

*

More than a year after Junica Dube lost her son, she is almost ready to give birth again. A new life seems a happy event in a country full of pain.

But here, things keep on getting worse. It’s not just the decaying roads and the crazy inflation. Earlier this year, most schools and hospitals worked. Now most don’t.

Thinking of the birth, Dube, 29, stares blankly ahead.

“I can’t even say how I feel. I’m worried because there are no doctors. There are no nurses. I have to buy everything that is needed for me to give birth. And you can’t afford to buy anything.”

“I feel very fearful,” adds her husband, Luke Dube, 34, recalling the death of his newborn last year. “What I saw last time, if it can happen again, I’d rather die. We try to forget about it, but it comes back at any time and you think about it.”

*

Once, Asiatu dared to fall in love, with a fellow MDC activist named Phainos. But he fled in May during the election violence and hasn’t been heard of since.

“We were on the verge of getting married,” she says. “I’m afraid for his life, because the silence is too long.”

In her township, she often has to pass the “comrades” who raped her.

“I just look away and walk past. I feel so much hate and anger, sometimes I begin trembling.”

When I visit her at home in December, Asiatu wants an HIV test. So I drive her to a clinic in town. When I come by the clinic later, she’s sitting slumped on the curb, head bowed.

“I feel sorry for myself. They told me that I am pregnant,” she says later. Despite being four months pregnant, she says she hadn’t realized her predicament. “It hurts. It hurts a lot.” The HIV result will come later.

She feels no joy at the thought of a child born of rape. The father “is one of those guys, but I don’t know which one.”

I try to tell her that a baby’s always good news, but choke on my words. Sometimes, in Zimbabwe, it’s not. I brush away a sudden stream of tears. Where to start?

I take out my cellphone and pull up pictures of my daughter. My voice shakes as I tell her that I never wanted to be a single mother, either. But as difficult as it is to believe, it will be all right.

Asiatu considers the photographs carefully as I scroll one by one through my pictures.

“She’s beautiful,” Asiatu says softly. She tells me her child will be a girl too.

I ask if she feels happy about that. Finally, the ghost of a smile flickers.

“A little bit,” she whispers.

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