Monday, June 23, 2008

Coercion Via Mob

These tactics are not limited to the domain of dictators.

The Times Online

On Saturday night the radio sprang to life in the kitchen. It was my father-in-law. “There's a chanting mob outside the pack-house,” he said.

My heart was throbbing already. I pushed the transmit button: “OK. Keep us informed,” I replied.

Laura, my wife, went to try to phone people and get them to pray. Why had our workers not told us about this pungwe, I thought? It must be a mob from outside our area. I could hear them chanting a mile down the road from our house. I wondered, as I had done so many times before, if this was it.

The mob moved on towards us and then past. We were given another night's grace.

Last weekend we had a big pungwe - a political indoctrination meeting - on the farm. It was after Mugabe had come to our little town of Chegutu, southwest of Harare, and addressed the crowd with threats of “war”. A pungwe starts when the shadows lengthen and the sun goes down and darkness falls over the land. It does not stop till after the sun has risen again.

All our workers had to go, as well as all their wives with babies and any children over the age of 12. Some of them didn't go; so the mob sent little bands of chanting youth militia with sticks to fetch the absentees, drag them out of their houses and beat them for non-attendance. Through the night we heard the chanting and the slogans and the re-education speeches ringing out into the cold darkness for hour after hour after hour. On and on it went, striking fear into my heart. I got up and paced around in the cold night, listening.

When the first birds began to sing, I thought: “How can these birds sing after such a night as this?” Then the birdsong was drowned out. There was a terrible noise like a swarm of bees. I knew the beatings had begun again and I listened helpless, tormented, in fear but praying fervently.

I spoke to our workers later. “Mount Carmel workers were all made to stand to one side,” Amon said. “We were shaking because we were so afraid of what was to happen to us. Those that had been polling agents for MDC had water poured over them.”

It was a frosty morning. “The major [Major Tauye, brought in from the Army to run pungwes in Chegutu district] was waving his gun around everywhere,” he went on.

I learnt that the MDC polling agents were made to put their forehead on the ground and lift their whole bodies up on their toes and then hold the position as they shook in the cold. After some time they were given sticks and had to beat each other.

The Major then said: “You say we beat you! We don't beat you! You are the ones that beat!”

“Will the people vote?” I asked.

“We are in pain but we cannot speak because we do not know who will tell. Even if we make a report the police will not help,” Amon said.

I had seen the hope for a better future draining out of him. He had been kicked off one farm already and I sensed he was worried we would throw in the towel too.

“I will not leave,” I said. “They must shoot me if they want me off.”

I remembered another friend whose workers were sobbing when she was forced to pack up a couple of weeks ago after three generations on the farm. They knew they were on their own then, voiceless in the wilderness.

On Friday morning I went to see James Etheridge. He had been evicted in the darkness earlier in the week by Senator Madzongwe's men and the local hit man, Gilbert Moyo, with a large mob. James was in a borrowed shirt because all his clothes had been stolen. We were trying to see if there was anything that hadn't been looted left in the houses.

We drove through the gate and down the drive. Straight ahead there was a line of large rocks blocking the road. As we got closer, men wielding sticks got up and started coming menacingly towards us. Our presence had the effect of a stone thrown into a hornets' nest. Soon the rocks started to fly in our direction. I saw figures running through the bush to try to get around behind us and cut us off. “OK, let's get out of here,” I said and reversed as fast as I could.

Between the Etheridges and ourselves we have spent nearly 30 hours at the police station this week making reports and failing to get a reaction.

Yesterday we finally saw our first observers. We met them at the police station. Having the observers there worked like magic: police reacted and even moved quickly after we reported that all the Etheridges belongings - the ones that had not yet been stolen - had been dumped on the side of the main road.

When the observers left to come to my house, James's wife Kerry and his brother were ambushed and started getting beaten with sticks. The police stood by because they had not brought bullets for their guns and the senator's men were armed. They had to run for it and managed to get away.

While I was on the way back to my family with the observers, our workers were rounded up by youths with sticks going to the pungwe. They started demanding that Laura come out of the house and they beat one of our dogs with a stick at the gate. Then before I got there they headed off again, running across the veldt like a pack of wild dogs seeking their next prey.

The observers didn't know about pungwes; and they have been advised not to go out after dark, so I suppose they will never see them. Almost all Mugabe's campaigning goes on after dark. The pungwes have spread like a great cancer even to town.

Owen, one of our workers in Chegutu, said he has had to go to all-night pungwes for the past three nights.

“Will you be an MDC polling agent again?” I said to Lorence, another worker, this morning.

“Ah no.” he said. “We are too afraid for that. We need to get out of here before the pungwe tonight because they are going to beat us.”I got them into town and gave them fifteen billion dollars each for their bus fares to a “safe” house 80km away.

As I went around town I talked to people. It was tense. They were full of fear and terrible stories about atrocities taking place; but we were together. I could sense a strong undercurrent of solidarity in the common load of suffering that we are all bearing.

None of us knows what will happen next. Dictators like Mugabe do not step down. Like Hitler, they go on till their country is in ruins and their people are in rags. World leaders tut-tut as the crimes against humanity go on unhindered; but their perpetrators live on and travel the world with impunity.