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Inside Mugabe's Violent Crackdown

Craig Timberg - Washington Post Foreign Service

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Saturday, July 5, 2008; A01

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- President Robert Mugabe summoned his top security officials to a government training center near his rural home in central Zimbabwe on the afternoon of March 30. In a voice barely audible at first, he informed the leaders of the state security apparatus that had enforced his rule for 28 years that he had lost the presidential vote held the previous day.

Then Mugabe told the gathering he planned to give up power in a televised speech to the nation the next day, according to the written notes of one participant that were corroborated by two other people with direct knowledge of the meeting.

But Zimbabwe's military chief, Gen. Constantine Chiwenga, responded that the choice was not Mugabe's alone to make. According to two firsthand accounts of the meeting, Chiwenga told Mugabe his military would take control of the country to keep him in office or the president could contest a runoff election, directed in the field by senior army officers supervising a military-style campaign against the opposition.

Mugabe, the only leader this country has known since its break from white rule nearly three decades ago, agreed to remain in the race and rely on the army to ensure his victory. During an April 8 military planning meeting, according to written notes and the accounts of participants, the plan was given a code name: CIBD. The acronym, which proved apt in the fevered campaign that unfolded over the following weeks, stood for: Coercion. Intimidation. Beating. Displacement.

In the three months between the March 29 vote and the June 27 runoff election, ruling-party militias under the guidance of 200 senior army officers battered the Movement for Democratic Change, bringing the opposition party's network of activists to the verge of oblivion. By election day, more than 80 opposition supporters were dead, hundreds were missing, thousands were injured and hundreds of thousands were homeless. Morgan Tsvangirai, the party's leader, dropped out of the contest and took refuge in the Dutch Embassy.

This account reveals previously undisclosed details of the strategy behind the campaign as it was conceived and executed by Mugabe and his top advisers, who from that first meeting through the final vote appeared to hold decisive influence over the president.

The Washington Post was given access to the written record by a participant of several private meetings attended by Mugabe in the period between the first round of voting and the runoff election. The notes were corroborated by witnesses to the internal debates. Many of the people interviewed, including members of Mugabe's inner circle, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of government retribution. Much of the reporting for this article was conducted by a Zimbabwean reporter for The Post whose name is being withheld for security reasons.

What emerges from these accounts is a ruling inner circle that debated only in passing the consequences of the political violence on the country and on international opinion. Mugabe and his advisers also showed little concern in these meetings for the most basic rules of democracy that have taken hold in some other African nations born from anti-colonial independence movements.

Mugabe's party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, took power in 1980 after a protracted guerrilla war. The notes and interviews make clear that its military supporters, who stood to lose wealth and influence if Mugabe bowed out, were not prepared to relinquish their authority simply because voters checked Tsvangirai's name on the ballots.

"The small piece of paper cannot take the country," Solomon Mujuru, the former guerrilla commander who once headed Zimbabwe's military, told the party's ruling politburo on April 4, according to notes of the meeting and interviews with some of those who attended.

'Professional Killers'

The plan's first phase unfolded the week after the high-level meeting, as Mugabe supporters began erecting 2,000 party compounds across the country that would serve as bases for the party militias.

At first, the beatings with whips, striking with sticks, torture and other forms of intimidation appeared consistent with the country's past political violence. Little of it was fatal.

That changed May 5 in the remote farming village of Chaona, located 65 miles north of the capital, Harare. The village of dirt streets had voted for Tsvangirai in the election's first round after decades of supporting Mugabe.

On the evening of May 5 -- three days after Mugabe's government finally released the official results of the March 29 election -- 200 Mugabe supporters rampaged through its streets. By the time the militia finished, seven people were dead and the injured bore the hallmarks of a new kind of political violence.

Women were stripped and beaten so viciously that whole sections of flesh fell away from their buttocks. Many had to lie facedown in hospital beds during weeks of recovery. Men's genitals became targets. The official postmortem report on Chaona opposition activist Aleck Chiriseri listed crushed genitals among the causes of death. Other men died the same way.

At the funerals for Chiriseri and the others, opposition activists noted the gruesome condition of the corpses. Some in the crowds believed soldiers trained in torture were behind the killings, not the more improvisational ruling-party youth or liberation war veterans who traditionally served as Mugabe's enforcers.

"This is what alerted me that now we are dealing with professional killers," said Shepherd Mushonga, a top opposition leader for Mashonaland Central province, which includes Chaona.

Mushonga, a lawyer whose unlined face makes him look much younger than his 48 years, won a seat in parliament in the March vote on the strength of a village-by-village organization that Tsvangirai's party had worked hard to assemble in rural Mashonaland.

After Chaona, Mushonga turned that organization into a defense force for his own village, Kodzwa. Three dozen opposition activists, mostly men in their 20s and 30s, took shifts patrolling the village at night. The men armed themselves with sticks, shovels and axes small enough to slip into their pants pockets, Mushonga said.

The same militias that attacked Chaona worked their way gradually south through the rural district of Chiweshe, hitting Jingamvura, Bobo and, in the predawn hours of May 28, Kodzwa, where about 200 families live between two rivers.

When about 25 ruling-party militia members attempted to enter the village along its two dirt roads, Mushonga said, his patrols blew whistles, a prearranged signal for women, children and the elderly to flee south across one of the rivers to the relative safety of a neighboring village.

Over the next few hours, the two rival groups moved through Kodzwa's dark streets. Shortly after dawn, Mushonga's 46-year-old brother, Leonard, and about 10 other opposition activists cornered five of the ruling-party militia members. One of the militia members was armed with a bayonet, another a traditional club known as a knobkerrie.

In the scuffle, Leonard Mushonga and his group prevailed, beating the five intruders severely. But he said that this small, rare victory revealed evidence that elements of the army had been deployed against them.

One of the ruling-party men, Leonard Mushonga said, carried a military identification badge. In a police report on the incident, which led to the arrest of 26 opposition activists, the soldier was identified as Zacks Kanhukamwe, 47, a member of the Zimbabwe National Army. A second man, Petros Nyguwa, 45, was listed as a sergeant in the army.

He was also listed as a member of Mugabe's presidential guard.

Terror Brings Results

The death toll mounted through May, and almost all of the fatalities were opposition activists. Tsvangirai's personal advance man, Tonderai Ndira, 32, was abducted and killed. Police in riot gear raided opposition headquarters in Harare, arresting hundreds of families that had taken refuge there.

Even some of Mugabe's stalwarts grew uneasy, records of the meetings show.

Vice President Joice Mujuru, wife of former guerrilla commander Solomon Mujuru and a woman whose ferocity during the guerrilla war of the 1970s earned her the nickname Spill Blood, warned the ruling party's politburo in a May 14 meeting that the violence might backfire. Notes from that and other meetings, as well as interviews with participants, make clear that she was overruled repeatedly by Chiwenga, the military head, and by former security chief Emerson Mnangagwa.

Mnangagwa, 61, earned his nickname in the mid-1980s overseeing the so-called Gukurahundi, when a North Korea-trained army brigade slaughtered thousands of people in a southwestern region where Mugabe was unpopular. From then on, Mnangagwa was known as the Butcher of Matabeleland.

The ruling party turned to Mnangagwa to manage Mugabe's runoff campaign after first-round results, delayed for five weeks, showed Tsvangirai winning but not with the majority needed to avoid a second round.

The opposition, however, had won a clear parliamentary majority.

In private briefings to Mugabe's politburo, Mnangagwa expressed growing confidence that the violence was doing its job, according to records of the meetings. After Joice Mujuru raised concerns about the brutality in the May 14 meeting, Mnangagwa said only, "Next agenda item," according to written notes and a party official who witnessed the exchange.

At a June 12 politburo meeting at party headquarters, Mnangagwa delivered another upbeat report.

According to one participant, he told the group that growing numbers of opposition activists in Mashonaland Central, Matabeleland North and parts of Masvingo province had been coerced into publicly renouncing their ties with Tsvangirai. Such events were usually held in the middle of the night, and featured the burning of opposition party cards and other regalia.

Talk within the ruling party began predicting a landslide victory in the runoff vote, less than three weeks away.

Mugabe's demeanor also brightened, said some of those who attended the meeting. Before it began, he joked with both Mnangagwa and Joice Mujuru.

It was the first time since the March vote, one party official recalled, that Mugabe laughed in public.

'Nothing to Go Back To'

The opposition's resistance in Chiweshe gradually withered under intensifying attacks by ruling-party militias. After the stalemate in Kodzwa, the militias continued moving south in June, finally reaching Manomano in the region's southwestern corner.

The opposition leader in Manomano was Gibbs Chironga, 44, who had won a seat in the local council as part of Tsvangirai's first-round landslide in the area. The Chirongas were shopkeepers with a busy store in Manomano. To defend that store, they kept a pair of shotguns on hand.

On June 20, a week before the runoff election, Mugabe's militias arrived in Manomano with an arsenal that had grown increasingly advanced as the vote approached.

Some carried AK-47 assault rifles, which are standard issue for Zimbabwe's army. For the attack on Manomano, witnesses counted six of the weapons.

About 150 militia members, some carrying the rifles, circled the Chironga family home. Gibbs Chironga fired warning shots from his shotgun, relatives and other witnesses recalled. Yet the militiamen kept coming. They broke open the ceiling with a barrage of rocks, then used hammers to batter down the walls.

When Gibbs Chironga emerged, a militia member shot him with an AK-47, said Hilton Chironga, his 41-year-old brother, who was wounded by gunfire. Gibbs died soon after.

His brother, sister and mother were beaten, then handcuffed and forced to drink a herbicide that burned their mouths and faces, relatives said.

Both Hilton Chironga and his 76-year-old mother, Nelia Chironga, were taken to the hospital in Harare, barely able to eat or speak. The whereabouts of Gibbs Chironga's sister remain unknown. The family home was burned to the ground.

"There's nothing to go back to at home," Hilton Chironga said softly, a bandage covering the wounds on his face and a pair of feeding tubes snaking into his nostrils.

"Even if I go back, they'll finish me off. That is what they want," he said.

Two days later, as Mugabe's militias intensified their attacks, Tsvangirai dropped out of the race.

Groups of ruling-party youths took over a field on the western edge of downtown Harare where he was attempting to have a rally, and soon after, he announced that the government's campaign of violence had made it impossible for him to continue. Privately, opposition officials said the party organization had been so damaged that they had no hope of winning the runoff vote.

On election day, Mugabe's militias drove voters to the polls and tracked through ballot serial numbers those who refused to vote or who cast ballots for Tsvangirai despite his boycott.

The 84-year-old leader took the oath of office two days later, for a sixth time. He waved a Bible in the air and exchanged congratulatory handshakes with Chiwenga, whose reelection plan he had adopted more than two months before, and the rest of his military leaders.

About the same time, a 29-year-old survivor of the first assault in Chaona, Patrick Mapondera, emerged from the hospital. His wife, who had also been badly beaten, was recovering from skin grafts to her buttocks. She could sit again.

Mapondera had been the opposition chairman for Chaona and several surrounding villages. If and when the couple returns home, he said, he does not expect to take up his job again.

"They've destroyed everything," he said.