There's an open question whether Zimbabwe's election Friday would be valid even if it hadn't been marred by violence and intimidation, because it's pretty clear that a fairly small percentage of people actually turned out to vote. Some legal experts say that at least 50 percent of the registered voters would have needed to cast their ballots. No results have been released as yet officially (for what that's worth), but a sampling of a dozen polling places in Harare and the nearby town of Chitungwiza is pretty compelling.
At the Tamuka polling place for the 24th Ward in Chitungwiza, 1,212 voters chose President Robert Mugabe, 513 chose opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai, and 786 deliberately spoiled their ballot in an apparent protest. And that of course doesn't begin to count those who heeded the opposition's boycott and just didn't vote. That ward has 22,000 registered voters, and only 12.7 percent participated meaningfully. In contrast, during the first presidential race on March 29, voter turnouts were very high.
On Saturday a few shops and businesses opened but it was still preternaturally quiet in the capital, Harare, as if people were collectively holding their breath, waiting for the retribution that ZANU-PF enforcers had promised for those who voted against them or stayed away from the polls. Activists from the government party were searching bread lines outside bakeries this morning, checking people's fingers. Those who didn't have the telltale purple ink showing they had voted, were pulled out of line and told they'd be allowed no bread.
It didn't take long for outright violence to break out, either. Ismail Siyarun, the secretary of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the Chitungwiza district, wisely fled his house Friday night; at 1 a.m. on Saturday, a gang of Green Bombers, Mugabe's youth militia, ransacked the place, breaking all the windows and stealing whatever of his belongings seemed worth taking, mostly clothing and household items. Siyarun was just happy they didn't get his family or him; in the course of the election campaigns of recent years, he's been arrested 32 times.
We dropped by a hospital in Harare to talk to some MDC victims, though all of them had been attacked before the election, some as recently as Thursday. We were immediately told that journalists have been banned from this hospital (probably from all of them by now), but we presented ourselves as friends of victims, and the nurses on reception just shrugged. The victims, whom Siyarun had identified for us, were MDC activists from Chitungwiza and we only had a chance to talk to three of them; many more are there as well. They'd all been targeted separately by large gangs of ZANU-PF activists, and savagely beaten with iron bars and clubs.
Jacob Muvavi, 38, a municipal policeman himself, was singled out for particularly harsh treatment and taken to a ZANU-PF base, where he was beaten for three hours and had scalding water thrown on his wounds. His tormentors wanted him to confess where he was hiding his MDC T-shirt, so they could make him publicly destroy it, but he refused. Eventually one of his fellow policemen heard where he was and rescued him. "I will never give up my T-shirt," Muvavi said.
Winfielder Musarrurwa, 21, a youth leader for the MDC, only survived because her tormentors left her for dead. "I pretended to be dead and they left me," she said. They had found her at 1 a.m. on Thursday, hiding in her sister's house, stripped off her clothing and beat her with sticks and iron bars on her buttocks and privates. She readily dropped her dress to show the evidence, which was horrifying—modesty surrendered in the sake of giving testimony. They also poured scalding water on her wounds and pounded her arms until they were black and blue. It hasn't dampened her spirit any. "I will never stop supporting the MDC and Morgan Tsvangirai, even if it costs me my life," she said.
Scalding water seems to be a favorite weapon; it was also used on Georgie Simango, 27, a party worker and a samosa street vendor, who was also burned by hot ashes from a fireplace. But we didn't get much more into the details; at that point the hospital's director came in and demanded to know who we were. One of the nurses had ratted—probably only one, because most seemed pretty happy to see us visit. We explained we were just interested parties, certainly not accredited journalists. "Look, I want the world to know what is happening here as much as anyone," the director said. "But I also want these people to still be getting treatment here next week." It was a reasonable position and a classic conundrum; we left after agreeing not to divulge the name of the facility.
How much worse this will get before African countries manage to pressure Mugabe into surrender, it's hard to say, though the initial indications are worrisome. It probably helps the case against him that the low turnout will make it even harder to try to peddle this as a legitimate victory, and at this point, as the second highest vote-getter in the first round of elections, Mugabe can hardly continue to claim to be the legitimate president of Zimbabwe. Dictator, is the title he deserves now, or, at best, self-proclaimed president.
Stopping by the business center of a major hotel to file this story, I was warned off when we saw one of the computer bays occupied by one of Mugabe's Men in Black—black suit, black shirt, natty yellow tie, an officer in the Central Intelligence Office. In this case my guide actually recognized him as a CIO man, he said, but since the CIO all wear pretty much the same uniform, that's only a formality (at night they switch to black leather jackets for the wet work). We eavesdropped on him from a nearby booth; he was multi-tasking, checking his Yahoo e-mail account (I'm tempted to post the address for all those good-intentioned hackers out there) and talking on a cellphone. "I told those guys at the State House to release 400 liters of fuel for the drivers and they didn't do it," he said. "What's their problem? We have an operation tonight."
After a spell of shouting, he got up and went outside. There he exchanged money and keys with the driver of a minibus parked in the lot, and gave him and several Zimbabweans inside the vehicle instructions. Interestingly, the bus had a sign on the side identifying it as "African Union Observers." Since they never go out at night, the election observers probably have no idea how their vehicles are being used in the dark.
There's no end to the dirty tricks the regime employed in stealing the election. Thanks to the sullen protest of Zimbabwe's voters, it seems likely Mugabe will end up like the burglar who finds he has gone to all that trouble to rumble an empty house.