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Saturday, 25 August, 2001, 16:04 GMT 17:04 UK
Gauging opinion in troubled Zimbabwe
The white farmers prepare to leave prison in Zimbabwe after 17 days
The recent arrest of 21 white farmers sent out shock waves
As a foot and mouth disease outbreak caps a troubled fortnight for Zimbabwe's white farmers, Chris McGreal, a former BBC reporter who now works for the Guardian in Zimbabwe, finds that there is a new and strange sympathy for whites by some of the people they once oppressed.

Robert Mugabe has achieved the remarkable feat of making quite a lot of black Zimbabweans feel sorry for their white compatriots.

It is all the more startling when you consider that it is men like my recent acquaintance, Victor, who are attracting sympathy.

Commercial Farmers' Union congress
Some Zimbabwean farmers have considered emigration

A couple of weeks ago, he drove me to the heart of Doma - a patch of northern Zimbabwe under siege from President Robert Mugabe's private militia, the men and women who call themselves "war veterans" but who rarely wielded a gun.

White farmers had cleared out their families - sending the women and children off to Harare or South Africa.

Thirty-four men remained to watch over their deserted houses.

The farmers set up patrols, staying in touch on the ubiquitous radio security network left over from the conflict in the 1970s against the real liberation war veterans.

But the whites were powerless to stop the organised plunder of dozens of their homes.

'Realist'

As Victor drove me around the web of tracks linking the farms with English and Afrikaans names, he tentatively offered the view that he was a realist a euphemism favoured in Zimbabwe by those who do not think black people are really up to governing countries.

These farmers are a forgetful lot.

Just a decade ago they got along with Robert Mugabe quite fine. Crop prices were booming. The poorer farmers bought a new Mercedes. The richer ones were snapping up planes and carving out landing strips.


The white farmers and the revolutionary leader had a cosy little relationship in which land redistribution figured as one of those political ideals like full employment.

Chris McGreal

Some took care to improve the conditions of their workers and families, but by no means all, and there was no pressure from the Mugabe government to do so.

The white farmers and the revolutionary leader had a cosy little relationship in which land redistribution figured as one of those political ideals like full employment.

But not enough to worry Zimbabwe's farming elite.

Victor grunts at the suggestion that perhaps it might have been wise to take the land issue a little more seriously some time ago.

After a pause he offers the thought that they would just have messed it up earlier.

Victor's solution

Occasionally the guard slips further and he wistfully mentions that there was a time when he knew how to deal with his enemies - shoot them.

Victor confesses that during the liberation war he was booted out of the army because he objected to taking prisoners.

So he was despatched to serve in the Rhodesian navy, stopping gun-runners from Zambia on Lake Kariba.

Today, the guns are all well out of sight. The farmers know that retaliation will do them no good.

Even self-defence has its dangers, as the 21 farmers who rushed to the aid of one of their number under siege from war veterans discovered when the were locked up for a fortnight.

Still, Victor reflects fondly on the days when he could fight back.

Nothing rankles more with him than the proposition that he and his kind lost the liberation war.

Victor favours the stab-in-the-back theory expounded by Ian Smith which argues that Rhodesia was sold down the river by South Africa's Prime Minister John Vorster, in the deluded hope that it would ease international pressure on the apartheid regime.

Devastation

Eventually we reach the plundered homes.

The looters have done their job well. In some of the houses, there is barely a fitting left, let alone furniture.

Some of the wreckers destroy what they cannot take smashing ovens and windows to discourage the whites from returning.

The only things consistently deemed of no value are books left scattered across floors.
Black workers pack up to leave after their farm is seized
The land invasions also affect black farm workers

One of the farmers asks if I have ever seen destruction like this?

I hesitate to disillusion him.

Well, yes. At one time or another this was pretty standard stuff in Somalia or Zaire or Liberia or a whole host of other places.

The farmer looks at me. "But this," he says, waving his arm.

I am baffled.

"Real houses, people's things," he says.

Degrees of suffering

It is the looting, and the pathetic sight of the 21 arrested, handcuffed, barefoot farmers with their heads shaved, and the occasional killings on the farms, that have some black people feeling sorry for whites for the first time.

A black lawyer friend told me people believed whites had finally paid the price for the past - a kind of forced penance that now made them true Zimbabweans.

Perhaps.

But the whites have a long way to go before they suffer what Robert Mugabe is putting a lot of poor black people through.
President Mugabe
President Mugabe has defined land rights as the central issue

All the attention on the farmers is just what Mr Mugabe wants.

It allows him to define land as the issue and whites as the problem.

But his detractors will tell you what is blindingly obvious - that this is a struggle for power and that campaign is being waged with brutality against blacks.

More blacks died in political killings last month than all of the white farmers since the crisis began early last year.

But for Victor that is just further confirmation that he is a realist.

After all, he says, killing is what Africans do, is it not?

See also:

16 Aug 01 | Africa
Airlift plan for Zimbabwe Britons
16 Aug 01 | Africa
Diplomatic options over Zimbabwe
17 Aug 01 | Africa
Fleeing Zimbabwe for UK
17 Aug 01 | UK Politics
UK's Zimbabwe 'silence' under fire
02 Aug 01 | Africa
Zimbabwe targets more white farms
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