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Page last updated at 08:10 GMT, Thursday, 12 June 2008 09:10 UK

Harare diary: Descent into violence

An infant cries in a makeshift open air cmp among some 34 adults and 106 children in the town of Mutare in eastern Zimbabwe on April 17, 2008 after their homes were burnt down

Esther (not her real name), 28, a professional living and working in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, is writing a regular diary on the challenges of leading a normal life.

Zimbabwe is suffering from an acute economic crisis. The country has the world's highest rate of inflation and just one in five has an official job.

One hears horrendous stories of torture, violence and unbelievable cruelty being perpetrated against rural folk.

A headmaster of a school in my rural home was abducted from his home and severely beaten.

City dwellers are seen as the troublemakers, talking about "change" and about the news broadcasts aired on satellite TV
His wife found him in the woods nearby. They then fled to Harare to stay with their children here, but he died about two weeks after the incident.

Then there is a business client of my company who told us she had gone out to the countryside for her three-year-old niece's funeral. She was also killed during political violence.

The little girl was allegedly dropped on the ground by a man who had abducted her from her parents' home, to punish the father for supporting the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party.

I have also heard that if you absolutely have to go to the rural areas, you should aim to get there late at night, after the militiamen have gone off to their "bases" for the night's rally.

If you arrive in broad daylight, you run the risk of paying for the fact that you are from the city.

Remove satellite dishes

City dwellers are seen as the troublemakers, talking about "change" and about the news broadcasts aired on satellite TV.

Zimbabwe Presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement For Democratic Change party greets supporters in Bubi near Bulawayo, Sunday, 8 June
It can be dangerous to support Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC

Actually, there are reports that people are being told to take down their satellite dishes in some areas.

And one of our independent papers had a picture of a man burnt to death on the front page of this week's edition.

He died when the MDC office in Jerera was petrol bombed.

Jerera is a rural area where opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai held a surprisingly large rally in March.

I think the editor decided to go with that photo to shock us out of our denial (for those who still doubt these atrocities are taking place), and he succeeded.

I sought out the paper because a couple of distraught friends had asked if I'd seen the picture.

The latest rumour is that war veterans plan to set up their bases in cities. These bases are where "re-education" of opposition supporters (actual and accused) takes place.

It referred to as re-education because you are being taught how to vote in the presidential run-off on 27 June for those who cast their ballots "wrongly" on 29 March.

Intolerant

When I heard this for the second time on my way to work, I said to my friends, "Let them try to set up those camps. Towns belong to the MDC, we will beat them so hard, they will never try to intimidate us again."

A Zanu-PF poster in Zimbabwe
President Mugabe of Zanu-PF faces Mr Tsvangirai in the run-off

Later, as I thought about what I had said, I realised I was becoming like the very people I blame for all our woes - full of hate, intolerant of views contrary to my own, seeing violence as a perfectly acceptable way of settling differences.

I am not that person, I refuse to become that person. I am civilised and abhor violence in all its forms.

But it seems now it calls for a conscious effort to decide what one stands for, to rise above the situation, to influence one's environment rather than be influenced by it.

I learnt the other day that fighting broke out between ruling Zanu-PF and opposition supporters in Chitungwiza, a town about 15km (nine miles) out of the Harare.

The Zanu-PF supporters arrived at a local market and tried to restrict the area to card-carrying ruling party members.

Apparently when some MDC youth heard about this they arrived at the market to drive them, telling them to go to Uzumba Maramba Pfungwe, an area where President Robert Mugabe won an overwhelming majority in the first round.

Fighting broke out, and the Mugabe supporters fled as they were outnumbered.

I am worried that as people take it upon themselves to defend their party's territories we could have a serious escalation of violence in the urban areas as well, and end up with total anarchy.


Esther answers your questions:

Hi Esther, I spoke to a friend in Zimbabwe and he said that people are having such a terrible time since the last elections that they would rather vote for Robert Mugabe and go back to what things were like before the elections, than run the risk of the violence getting worse. Is that the feeling you are getting? Sadly it seems like all the intimidation has worked.
Chris, Oxford, UK

Well, quite a number of people seem to feel like that. Besides, they've learnt that the government can make a pretty educated guess as to how they voted, and punish them for it. On the other hand, quite a heartening number are defiant, and say the militia can beat them all they want, but that will not break the people's spirit. So they will vote for change, regardless of all the abuse.

Esther, what are some of the practical aspects of living with 165,000% + inflation? How does one physically carry around enough money to make meaningful purchases, and is there a Weimar Republic type situation where one would need a wheelbarrow to carry enough money for basic shopping? How, also, do you get reliable information of prices or keep track of value in such an environment? It would appear that prices are rising by 452% in a single day.
Patrick, Toronto, Canada

Let me give you a practical example- fresh milk went up from Z$350m for a pint to Z$1.1bn for the same quantity the next day. You can pay one fare on your way to work, and double that on the way back home. Basically it means you can not budget, and you can never leave home with 'just enough.' We don't cart money around in wheel barrows though, we have pretty large notes in circulation, since the Central Bank introduced "special agro cheques' ranging from Z$5bn to Z$50bn. A month from now, these may be small change but for now they are making life easier.

Dear Esther, with inflation continually spiralling out of control, have people not started using foreign currency in Zimbabwe?
Ronald, London, England

People have adopted a system of using the parallel market rate to work out the US$ value of goods and that helps keep track of values - I was shocked to see a small freezer being sold for Z$1.7 trillion, but I later realised it was only US$200, which is quite reasonable in this part of the world. The Central Bank frowns on deals conducted in currency other than our own, but in reality it is the only way that one can operate.

Dear Esther, what I would like to know is, if the opposition won more seats in the parliament, when do they take control? I hope change does come for you all and I applaud everyone's efforts to achieve it. You are very brave.
Brian, Malaga, Spain

Apparently parliament cannot sit until the presidential election is finalised, so we have to wait until after announcement of the June 27 results.

Hi Esther, my friends have left Harare now, so I have no one to tell me how it really feels. I lived in Harare for a while in the good times and love the city and the people there. I wanted to go back there but my friends told me it was foolish, that I would possibly be suspected of something and arrested. Can you walk around in the city centre without fear? Are people scared and quickly go from place to place? What is your greatest worry?
Max, Berkeley, California, USA

Do I make it sound that bad? Harare is OK-ish, except for when they bring out all the riot police to walk the streets, then it can get a bit scary. Let me put it this way - a person who visited Zimbabwe and stayed in Harare the whole time, avoiding the high density and rural areas, would leave saying that Mugabe is right, foreign media greatly exaggerates the situation.

Dear Esther, my big question is this: campaign or no campaign, intimidation or no intimidation, violence or no violence, when the chips are really down, when the time comes on June 27 for Zimbabweans to say they have had enough, will they be able to vote against Mr. Mugabe or has the intimidation and violence succeeded in scaring them away from the idea? Will there be a way for government to know if someone voted for Mugabe or Tsvangirai?
Christopher, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Like I said above, it differs for individuals, some a defiant, others have been beaten into submission. And while the government may not know how an individual voted, they can certainly know how areas did. The country is divided into provinces, then into constituencies and further into wards. Wards are pretty small, and election results are counted at ward level. This is where the loophole as regards people's privacy exists, and it so essential in our environment, that one's vote remains a secret.

You are out of order Esther (although it is not your real name) you are not a true African, you are a coward. Mugabe has shown his strength against the West which continues to oppress us but you are busy denting his image through your so-called diaries. The inflation and economic crisis has come from the West in revenge for the land that was seized from them and you cannot see that. Mugabe has led a successful Zimbabwe for a long time and he would not turn against his own people. Is it a crime to redistribute land to landless blacks? You should concentrate on pleading with the West to remove sanctions. Mugabe is right.
Kelvin, Blantyre, Malawi

A lot of people still see Mugabe as a hero, but fewer and fewer of these live in this country under these conditions.




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