Page last updated at 22:26 GMT, Tuesday, 6 May 2008 23:26 UK

Electoral cleansing in Zimbabwe


Orla Guerin goes undercover in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe's opposition has charged President Robert Mugabe's government with sponsoring a campaign of violent intimidation against its supporters ahead of a run-off presidential vote.

The BBC is banned from Zimbabwe, but our correspondent Orla Guerin has been undercover in rural Zimbabwe and gathered detailed accounts from village elders, members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and victims of violence.

Much of what is happening here is hidden from view, but we travelled deep into the rural areas to learn about the mechanics of the campaign.

A farm labourer sitting on the remains of his demolished hut in Umguzaan Farm in Nyamandhlovu, north of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, undated photo
Zanu-PF groups are accused of destroying MDC supporters' property

At a remote homestead in an opposition stronghold, village elders described the command structure in their area. We have decided not to reveal their names or their location.

They told us the operation was run by officials from the ruling Zanu-PF party, and so-called war veterans, with the help of a senior army officer.

The intimidation began at the top, with local chiefs, who then passed instructions down to village elders.

"The chief's headman told us the message from Zanu was go and tell the people to vote for the president," a village elder said.

"If you don't, you will see what will happen to you."

This man knows only too well what to expect come election time. He says his home was torched and his wife was beaten back in 2002.

Hint of desperation

At meetings called by the ruling party and its henchmen, explicit threats were made, according to an opposition councillor.

"They told us that if President Mugabe lost in the run-off, there would be war," he said.

"They said what happened during the war of liberation would happen again. There would be a second round of that."

Two MDC supporters who say they were beaten by Mugabe supporters - 3/5/2008
MDC supporters say they have been attacked by Zanu-PF supporters

But mixed with the threats was more than a hint of desperation. "They said 'we are begging you to vote for Zanu, in the name of Jesus'."

These accounts are consistent with reports from elsewhere.

There is a systematic attempt under way to change the political landscape. The aim is electoral cleansing - to drive opposition supporters from their voting areas, or make them too afraid to vote for the MDC again.

The local leaders we met said it would not work in their area because their people would not bow to intimidation.

"The people themselves say they will vote for the opposition, no matter what Zanu does, even if it means them dying," said one elder.

Harvest of fear

But there is another weapon in this campaign - hunger.

The leaders showed us their empty grain store, and gave us a tour of their fields of withered corn.

They desperately need maize, but say they cannot get it without a party card - another way the opposition is being weakened before a second round.

While the MDC supporters in this homestead may be determined to fight on, in others areas there is a new harvest of fear.

election results

Arson attacks, beatings, and killings have driven many opposition supporters into hiding.

No one knows how many, but the number could be as high as 1,500.

In some cases they have been forced to take refuge in the bush.

"We sleep in the maize fields because we know there's trouble ahead and we are very scared," said an MDC organiser.

"In the eyes of the ruling party it's a crime to vote for the MDC. They said they had taken control of the area by force in the past, and that was how it would stay."

An elderly relative who fled with her said that war veterans had threatened to burn any villages that voted for the MDC for a second time.

Human rights activists in Zimbabwe fear the campaign of intimidation is working only too well.

The say the ruling party has learnt lessons from the past. This time it is being more subtle. They say it is "choosing easy prey" - beating people who are not in the public eye.

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