Ben Freeth did not expect to be alive today. Just after midnight this morning, the white farmer was lying face down next to a bonfire, beside Mike and Angela Campbell, his wife's parents. He had no idea where his own three small children and his wife, Laura, were, only that a marauding band of loyalists from the ruling ZANU-PF party was hitting all the white farms in their district near the town of Chegutu, about 60 miles southwest of Harare. The three had been abducted from their farm by an armed gang and brought to their base. By midnight, they had been beaten for seven hours, while their tormentors danced around the bonfire and told them they'd kill them. "I really thought we were all dead," he said. "It must have been our prayers that stopped it. I was praying, and all our friends were praying, and then they put us in a truck and dumped us beside the road outside Kadoma," a town about 25 miles away.
Why the ZANU-PF let them live isn't clear, but the reasons for the attack were plain. Freeth, who is British-born, and his in-laws, white Zimbabweans, are among a small band of white farmers who remain in the fertile agricultural area, the scene of many of the forced expropriations of commercial farms; from 300 white farmers at the beginning of the decade, only about 30 remain in that area. Nationally, the pattern is similar. Mt. Carmel Farm, which belongs to the Campbells and Freeths and produces mangoes for export and a variety of other crops on 1,200 hectares [about 3,000 acres], had been targeted for expropriation two years ago by Nathan Shamuyarira, the official spokesman for the ZANU-PF party, who arrived at their gate with an order signed by the minister of land and agriculture telling them to surrender the farm to him. Under a bill enacted by Robert Mugabe's government, land could be expropriated on an administrative order at any time if the ministry determined that it was justified. Most of the farms in their area have been handed over to Mugabe government officials, diplomats, judges and army officers, although the intention of the bill was to give land to the landless. Freeth and the Campbells fought back, however, taking their case to a tribunal of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and arguing they were the victims of racial discrimination, in response to which the tribunal issued a restraining order. "We're challenging the land reform as a totally racist thing," Freeth said from his hospital bed in Harare (I've been asked not to identify the hospital). "We have neighbors who are black farmers who have not been targeted."
On top of that, during the election campaign, Freeth wrote an open letter that was widely disseminated outside of Zimbabwe detailing the intimidation of black farm workers, many of them supporters of the opposition MDC party, by ZANU-PF party activists—who rounded them up for all-night vigils and political harangues in the Chegutu area, often meting out beatings to workers on the Mt. Carmel farm and to MDC supporters. "None of us knows what will happen next," Freeth wrote. "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."
The trouble started about 3:30 p.m. yesterday, when Freeth got word that a large group of men was headed toward his in-laws' house after looting another white farm in the area, Twyford Farm. He drove over. At the gate of his in-laws' residence, about 20 black men had gathered. One of them was an army major he knew; another was Gilbert Moyo, a ZANU-PF local official who has been spearheading farm invasions in the area. "They shot twice at me through the windshield," he said, "and I just ducked in time not to be hit." Then, he said, they pulled him out of his truck and began beating him, throwing him into a ditch next to his mother-in-law and father-in-law: "They were shouting at me that I should drop my case against them with SADC." After beating all three, the men threw them into the back of their truck and drove to another white farmer's residence, that of Brian Bronkhorst. But Bronkhorst wasn't home. Then they were taken to the ZANU-PF base after dark and thrown on the ground by the bonfire. "These were the same people who were tormenting everyone before the elections," Freeth said. In addition to the three farms attacked and apparently looted yesterday, two other farms in the area have been attacked since Friday's runoff election.
As it happens, word had reached Freeth's wife, Laura, and she managed to escape with their three children, aged 3 to 8. Their middle child, 6-year-old Joshua, had his leg broken in a previous invasion of their farm when a mob rampaged through their house. Dumped in a ditch beside a road, Freeth and the Campbells made their way to a house and called for help. All three are now in the Harare hospital, where I managed to interview them by flashlight—electricity was off, as it often is in Harare, usually for half of each day. A lot of whites in Zimbabwe now are afraid to talk to the press, but not Freeth and the Campbells. "I'm glad you're here to tell people about this," he said. Freeth's eyes were swollen shut by the beating and he was covered with bruises and had a concussion, but he escaped any debilitating injury. His father-in-law, Mike Campbell, is more seriously hurt, with a broken collarbone; Mike's wife, Angela, has an arm broken in two places.
Freeth says he has every intention of returning to his farm. "I'm hanging in there," he said. "We hung in there the last eight years and we don't know what the future brings, but we're going to hang in there no matter what it brings." In his open letter before the election, he quoted another white farmer who was evicted after his home was destroyed: "'The first thing that I shall do when I am back on the farm is start digging foundations again.' And so, upon the ruins perhaps, that is the way it will have to be. But we pray the rebuilding can take place before everything is destroyed."
Mike Campbell too had written an open letter during the election, complaining that election observers were not coming out after dark, when most of the violence and intimidation took place. "We ask you to pray and send brave people and peace keepers to stop the atrocities before they get even worse," he wrote. "Maybe I write this in vain; but I write this crying."