The flame trees are in bloom, the weather mild and sunny. In this glorious midwinter, it is easy to be gulled by the benign face of a country under dictatorship. But in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, that illusion fades quickly.
Arriving after dark, we see gangs of young men, glimpsed in flashes, jogging excitedly down the verge of a wide avenue, half-hidden in the trees and the dark. They have signs and clubs; these are the ZANU-PF youths, young government party activists, who lately have been prowling the capital's best neighborhoods, not molesting the well-off residents themselves, but gathering at their gates and demanding that they send out all their servants for "re-education." They're then taken off for the night to some ZANU-PF center, where they're harangued, mostly about the potentially fatal error of voting for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) or for not voting in the one-horse election Robert Mugabe seems intent on going through with. But in the soft evening, it's hard to take this threat too seriously; the moist aroma of night jasmine perfumes the air. It can't be that bad, can it?
My first contact, ominously, is a no-show. I reach him on the phone and his voice is tense; ambulances scream in the background. "I'm very sorry, I can't meet you because we got called away when one of our friends was abducted and we found him shot in the head; he's in the hospital now, but we don't think he's going to make it. Another one we think is dead, but we can't find his body." The victims were party activists; some details I have to disguise for now, for the safety of those concerned. Suddenly, this is all very serious. And even three days after Morgan Tsvangirai announced he wouldn't run in Friday's election, the anti-opposition violence continues.
The tally is, at first glance, by African or even Zimbabwean standards, not all that great: 80 dead, some say over 100. Many more have died in previous Zimbabwe elections. Much more worrisome are another 200-500 cases of missing persons, many of them reportedly abducted by apparent government agents, and who simply disappeared. "I'm most worried about extrajudicial abductions and executions," says Zimbabwean activist Shari Eppel, author of a study of the Matabeleland massacres in the 1980s, when Mugabe's Fifth Brigade is widely believed to have killed 20,000 followers of the rival Joshua Nkomo faction of revolutionaries, cementing his control over the country's black majority. "We haven't seen that since 1985." Some victims just disappear, and it's not clear whether they've fled the country, as 3 million Zimbabweans (a fourth of the population) have in recent years, or whether they're at the bottom of a ditch somewhere.
One victim's fate was known: An activist named Tonderai Ndira, here in Harare, was taken by six men in black suits last May 14, men who were probably agents of the feared Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) and who threw him in the back of a van without saying a word. Four of them sat on him; a postmortem report showed he suffocated to death within minutes of his abduction—the supposition is that his abductors must have gagged him while they sat on him. His body was found with that of two others last month. "It's not just how many they killed," Eppel says. "It's who they killed; the people they're taking out have been absolutely key."
The number of deaths belies the scale of violence in another way. Most victims are just given a severe beating; the numbers of those are estimated by human rights activists and Western diplomats in Zimbabwe at 10,000. Or they have their homes burned down; those are estimated at 20,000. Some, like the domestic servants in Harare, are released unharmed, but with a stern warning that the wrong vote could mean death.
Later I find out what happened to my contact's friend. He and another worker from MDC had gone to the home of Tonderai's widow, Plaxidess Ndira, to help her move to a safer place. They had her car loaded with all of her belongings—there wasn't much—when two trucks with 11 men arrived, all in plainclothes, seven of them carrying CZ automatic pistols, family members told my contact. They were taken away at gunpoint and then shot and dumped beside the road. One of them was still alive when a passerby found him, and my contact was summoned to go out late at night to a lonely place 23 miles north of town. There, he found the victim, Tendai Chidziva, and took him to the hospital in Harare. He's now in the ICU, which is full to capacity, mostly with beating victims. "They don't even have any plaster left for setting bones," my contact said. The other victim, Josh Bakacheza, is still missing, but Tendai told his colleagues he believes Bakacheza was shot and killed. They weren't able to find him in the dark and were planning to go back the next morning. At least Tendai will, after all, probably survive. His head and chest gunshot wounds proved non-fatal.
Despite all this, somehow the opposition keeps carrying on. Tsvangirai emerged Wednesday from his refuge in the Dutch embassy to go home, get a change of clothes and give a press conference. He denied published accounts that he was calling on military intervention to unseat Mugabe and struck a conciliatory note. "We are making proposals Mugabe has to accept," he said. "I am asking the A.U. [African Union] and SADC [Southern African Development Community] to lead an expanded initiative supported by the U.N. to manage what I will call a transitional process." The day before, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement (signed even by South Africa, which previously had supported Mugabe) condemning the runoff election and saying it should be canceled. Then on Wednesday, SADC met in Swaziland to discuss Zimbabwe, but South Africa pointedly didn't send a delegation. Without the region's most powerful country and the intervention of its president, Thabo Mbeki, there's little hope an international effort will be effective.
Nonetheless, MDC activists clung to that hope even amid the violence. Late Wednesday afternoon, a hundred of them, looking bedraggled and tired, held a protest in front of the South African embassy, with signs reading MBEKI WE NEED YOU and HELP US SOUTH AFRICA. They said they had fled political violence in rural areas, suffering beatings and house-burnings, and their appearance was testament to their claims. I arrived shortly before police, who searched me and my car and quickly found cameras that had been tucked out of sight. They demanded to see the pictures, and though the cameras had been cleansed, a testy officer barked, "I'm not satisfied," and ordered me into the back of a pickup truck they had begun loading with demonstrators. South African diplomats came outside and tried to intervene, and in the confusion, one of them whispered to me, "Just get in your car and get out of here." One of the officers gave chase on foot, but I was already in the car and around the corner. It was a clean getaway for me. Who knows what will happen to their truckload of prisoners?
Knowing what Mugabe is capable of, Eppel says, it's altogether possible that he'll just keep killing his way into retention of power or, in the present case, until he's destroyed the MDC as a political force. "Mugabe expects he will die in office," she says. "That's his endgame. He's terrified of the International Criminal Court, and he's seen what happened to the likes of Charles Taylor in Liberia. There's a real fear of justice." As one party activist told me, "I think he'll just keep killing until he's the only one left in the country." At least then he'll win elections without any dispute. Now, the night jasmine has a fragrance tainted with menace. None of this will end well.