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Wednesday, 6 March, 2002, 16:49 GMT
Zimbabwe votes: Matabeleland
Three more villagers have been killed in Zimbabwe's continuing political violence.
The latest killings took place in the strife-torn Nkayi district in the north of the province, which pro-government supporters have declared a no-go area for the opposition.
The victims were Newman Bhebhe, an opposition Movement for Democratic Change official, and James Sibanda, a Zanu-PF chairman in the area who was allegedly killed by youths from his own party and former rebels.
According to eyewitnesses, Mr Sibanda was killed by the former rebels after he tried to defend his wife who had angered them by decorating her hut with an open palm.
Such decorations by ethnic Ndebele women are common in Matabeleland, but is now being used as the symbol of the MDC.
The former rebels accused the woman of being an opposition supporter and assaulted her.
James Sibanda tried to explain to them that the inscription was just a traditional decoration and did not have a political message.
Angered by his defence of his wife, the former rebels and youths are said to have marched Mr Sibanda to the bush and killed him.
These days, waving to someone with an open hand is an offence which could lead to death if you come across ruling party supporters.
Villagers who have fled Nkayi said they were still shocked by the murders of two people in the area.
"Our villages have become war zones. The world should not forget us in our dark times," said one woman who fled with her three children.
The MDC activist, Newman Bhebhe was abducted by the same group of former rebel fighters and his remains were found in the bush by villagers two days ago.
Nkayi police said they were under instructions not to talk to foreign media.
Meanwhile former commanders of the Zimbabwe Peoples Revolutionary Army, Zipra, have warned war veterans who support President Robert Mugabe not to start violence against civilians should their leader lose the election to Morgan Tsvangirai on Monday.
"We the genuine war veterans of the struggle for independence would like to send a strong message to our colleagues who support Zanu-PF that we will not accept any killings of ordinary people by the war veterans," said Nisbert Dube, the director of Zimbabwe Liberators Peace Forum.
The forum was formed by former guerrillas who fought under the Ndebele-dominated Zipra army during independence war.
Mr Dube said members of his group would not stand by and watch innocent people being killed by war veterans.
"We will defend the people of Zimbabwe at all costs should anything happen after the election."
More than 200 villagers whose homes were burnt by ruling Zanu-PF supporters on Sunday are still sleeping in the open and are appealing for assistance from aid agencies.
The villagers said they lost all their property when the activists set their huts on fire.
He said the attackers accused everyone of supporting Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
"We told them we were not MDC supporters," Mr Nyomi said.
According to the villagers, trouble started when they refused to get into a bus sent to collect them for President Mugabe's rally on Saturday.
The bus returned to Bulawayo empty.
The following day the activists returned to the village to get their revenge.
On Sunday all the villagers fled their homes and slept in the nearby Mazwi Game Reserve.
David's wife, Anna, was inside one of the huts with her six-month-old baby when the ruling party supporters set it on fire.
She managed to escape unhurt with the baby.
"I lost all my nappies in the fire, and I don't know where I will get the money to buy new ones because my money was also burnt," said Anna.
Some people are leaving urban areas and have decided to go to their rural homes fearing that violence will erupt after the results are announced on Monday or Tuesday.
Pro-government militias yesterday burnt down several homesteads belonging to people who had refused to attend President Robert Mugabe's rally in Bulawayo on Saturday.
Those affected live in the semi-urban Methodist villages about 26 km south of Bulawayo.
According to villagers there, war veterans arrived in the area yesterday and accused all the inhabitants of being MDC supporters.
They told me their homes were set alight by the war veterans after they attended Mr Tsvangirai's rally.
This morning officials from the aid agency, Christian Care visited the area to hand out food and blankets to the affected villagers.
"These people have no brains. How can they destroy our homes just because we attended the MDC rally? We have told the police but they will not arrest them because they are Zanu-PF," said one villager who lost everything when his bedroom was burnt.
Police refused to comment but ruling party officials were quick to blame MDC youths for the destruction of the villagers homes.
With only four days to go until the presidential election in Zimbabwe, parents from Botswana have begun withdrawing their children from schools in Matabeleland.
Since Saturday, large groups of Botswana nationals have been arriving to collect their children who are studying in the province - saying they feared that violence might break out soon after the election results are announced.
There are an estimated 10,000 Botswana students in boarding schools around Matabeleland province.
An education official in Bulawayo said the Ministry of Education would not be able to guarantee safety for students during the voting and after the results are announced.
Veterans of Zimbabwe's war of independence have always warned that should President Mugabe lose the election to the MDC leader, they would start another war.
Many people expect trouble soon after the election results are announced.
"I don't want to take chances with the life of my child," said one parent.
Meanwhile in the townships of Bulawayo, pro-government militias have deserted most of their camps.
The militias had set up 25 camps in the townships, but last week scores of them were injured when residents raided their bases in Njube township.
Some are still missing after they were captured by the residents backed by MDC youths.
Zimbabwe's second largest city, Bulawayo, is peaceful today following two days of street battles in the volatile townships.
The clashes between the opposition MDC and the Zanu-PF supporters followed the death on Thursday of a Zanu-PF activist in Phumula township.
The militia member died after he was run over by a car driven by a member of the opposition.
The MDC member said the death was an accident and did not have any intention of killing the militia member.
The deceased was part of a group of more than 100 pro-government militias who have set 23 bases in the townships of Bulawayo.
Yesterday the two main presidential election candidates, Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC and Robert Mugabe of the ruling party, Zanu-PF, addressed crucial rallies in Bulawayo. The two rallies passed off peacefully despite fears of violence.
The MDC leader attracted large crowds at the white city stadium while Mr Mugabe's venue in Babourfields was almost empty before residents were bussed in from different places.
Mr Tsvangirai addressed an estimated 20,000 cheering multi-racial crowd, mostly civil servants and youths.
The rally was stopped for some minutes after an army helicopter flew past the stadium while Mr Tsvangirai was still speaking.
He spoke mainly about bread and butter issues and warned the current army commander General Vitalis Zvinavashe that if he did not want to salute him if he won the election, he would be fired from the army.
"What we want is a professional police force and army. We will not tolerate a partisan army and police when the MDC comes into power", said the MDC leader.
At Babourfields, Mr Mugabe made his customary attacks on the British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his black puppets in the MDC.
He said he made a mistake in 1980 by forgiving people like Ian Smith and allowing whites to run the economy, especially agriculture which is the backbone of Zimbabwe's economy.
"No policeman will evict war veterans from the farms they have occupied," said the president.
Mr Mugabe begged the people of Bulawayo to vote for him and not to betray the late veteran nationalist, Joshua Nkomo, by voting for Mr Tsvangirai whom he described as a "tea-boy".
"I know that most of you here had left the party to go to MDC, but I want you come back home where you belong. Zanu-PF is your permanent home", Mr Mugabe told his supporters - who were made up mostly of the elderly who were bussed into the stadium from different townships and from outside Bulawayo.
There were about 7,000 people at Mugabe's rally.
About 200 Zimbabwean villagers in the southern district of Beitbridge have fled into South Africa to escape increasing attacks and daily beatings by pro-government mobs.
According to villagers in the district, the mobs which included youth militias and veterans of the independence war, were deployed in Beitbridge town two weeks ago.
Yesterday I spent the whole day speaking to villagers who decided to remain despite increasing violence.
One old man, Godfrey Muleya said he would not leave because the mobs would steal his livestock.
He said scores of villagers, especially young active members of the opposition, were leaving the district on a daily basis.
"I have a lot of wealth here. I would rather die than abandon my cattle," said Mr Muleya.
Police in the South African border town of Messina, about 10 km away, confirmed that large groups of Zimbabwean villagers started arriving in South Africa last week.
According to the spokesman, all the fleeing Zimbabweans spoke of daily harassment by government supporters and war veterans.
Zimbabwean police refused to comment when I asked them.
The fleeing Zimbabweans entering South Africa are being taken to an abandoned apartheid-era military camp.
The camp was set up to receive fleeing Zimbabweans as presidential election draw near.
More than 200 residents of Bulawayo who say they are fed up of being harassed and beaten up by pro-Zanu-PF militias on Monday night attacked them in their base in Njube township, forcing them to abandon it.
The residents, who were backed by some youths from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change raided the base at about 10pm local time.
The militants were taken by surprise and many fled in different directions but seven of them were unlucky. They were captured by the residents and severely beaten.
According to eyewitnesses, the residents took advantage of the absence of the police who usually provide back up for the militias. The residents were reportedly armed with axes, spears and sticks.
Police in Bulawayo refused to talk to me about the alleged attack.
Hospital officials confirmed treating two members of the militia.
On Sunday, the militias were also forced to abandon their base at Matsotsi in Njube when they were attacked by commuters who are fed up of being attacked by Zanu PF supporters.
The people of Matabeleland have not forgiven President Robert Mugabe for unleashing his notorious North Korean-trained Five Brigade on them in the 1980s.
The brigade, which massacred about 20,000 ethnic Ndebeles in the province, was exclusively composed of recruits from Mr Mugabe's Shona ethnic group.
Self-styled war veterans have been rounding up villagers and forced them to attend Mr Mugabe's rallies in Matabeleland.
The "war veterans" threatened the villagers with death if they refused.
One villager said Mr Mugabe would be fooling himself if he believed that the Ndebele people would vote for him next month.
"We will never vote for Mugabe because of what he did in the 80s," he said.
"We are being discriminated against in government and employment," said another villager.
Food aid has already started to arrive in Matabeleland, as the harvests have once again failed in this drought-prone region.
Hundreds of thousands of Ndebeles have already voted with their feet and gone to South Africa in search of jobs.
The Ndebeles originally came from South Africa in the 19th century and the language is similar to Zulu.
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