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A glimpse of Mugabe terror

Undercover reporting from Zimbabwe is a risky business. Add to the mix a close encounter with one of President Mugabe's most feared supporters and, as Ian Pannell discovered, it becomes a brief glimpse of the terror that many people in the country are living through.

Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe
A presidential run-off election is to be held on 27 June 2008

"We would like to apologise for the late release of results, this was due to the rigging process which was more difficult than we anticipated."

This joke was being passed around on mobile phones the last time I was in Zimbabwe.

It was early April and the country felt as though it was on the brink of historic change.

But I have just returned from another visit and this time the atmosphere could not be more different.

Sinister gangs

Many people have been arrested, more than 60 opposition activists have been murdered, thousands have been beaten, and tens of thousands of people have been driven from their homes.

People have learned to live very different lives.

They talk in code and use passwords to communicate with friends.

Anyone who has been actively involved in opposition politics can be assumed to be a target of the sinister gangs which come at night, dragging people from their beds for a savage beating or sometimes worse.

Manicaland

There are days when it feels that everyone is hiding something, running from something, planning or plotting something.

The vast majority of the violence over the last two months has been in the countryside.

We left Harare and headed east towards Manicaland, a lush, fertile, province whose rolling fields give way to mountains on the Mozambique border.

The areas that have seen most of the violence are those which have historically voted for Zanu-PF but which switched sides in the last election. Manicaland is one of those places.

We knew that hundreds of opposition supporters had been forced from their homes in a brutal campaign of retribution.

Face-to-face

A source told us of a site where 400 men, women and children were in hiding.

The area was thick with stories of ongoing violence and we knew that the militias, the military and the widely-feared war-veterans were active here.

After 30 minutes of driving along a fairly deserted road, we pulled over to wait for our contact.

That was when we encountered Joseph Chinotimba.

Joseph Chinotimba
Joseph Chinotimba is deputy-leader of the war veterans association

He was not our contact.

Joseph Chinotimba is the deputy leader of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association and perhaps the most feared member of a group that has become synonymous with the worst excesses of violence in Zimbabwe in the last eight years.

His car blocked ours. He got out with three other men, striding towards us, wearing a T-shirt with two Kalashnikovs and Robert Mugabe's face printed on it.

We were in trouble.

His eyes were unflinching, a large, brooding man, full of hatred, smelling of alcohol and full of threats.

He leaned into the car, demanding to know who we were, where we were from, what we were doing, where we were going.

"We know what you are up to," he said and he paused, as if waiting for a confession.

"There are journalists here you know."

Still no response from us.

Joseph Chinotimba is a thug of a man who has acted with impunity for many years, and it was only fast and fluid talking by two South African colleagues we were travelling with that persuaded him to leave us alone.

I will never quite believe that he really bought what felt like a terribly flimsy cover story about travelling to see friends, but he did eventually let us pass.

It was a frightening few minutes, a brief glimpse of the terror that many people in Zimbabwe are living through.

Voter intimidation

We did eventually meet our contact and drove on through many police road blocks to the people we had come to see.

We were taken to a run-down holiday camp which was now home to hundreds of people who had been forced out of their village for voting "wrongly".

One thing has not altered... people's desire for change

That was not their word but the one used by the thugs who attacked them.

Time and again we heard that same charge being levelled against people: "You voted wrongly and we're going to punish you."

I told our contact that we would only be 20 minutes here. "Ten would be better," he said, "it's not safe here."

And actually 10 minutes was enough time to hear not just what had happened to them but also what they would do about it.

The atmosphere in the country may have changed, the violence and intimidation is systematic and brutal and people are living different lives... but one thing has not altered and that is people's desire for change.

Fear yet defiance

I have spoken to people with deep gouged wounds in their buttocks and their feet, broken limbs, burnt down homes, even the bereaved.

Almost all are scared but they are also defiant.

Robert Mugabe's thugs may well have over-stepped the mark and actually stiffened people's resolve.

One woman who had lost everything was emphatic.

She told me that her beating had made her stronger. "It is my certificate," she said, like some perverse badge of distinction.

Now she would go and use it to vote again for change.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 14 June, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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