Thugs loyal to dictator Robert Mugabe have spread fear across Zimbabwe, with brutal attacks and murders of opposition supporters. The spiral of violence has finally forced opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai to pull out of this Friday's runoff presidential election.
The water level in the Limpopo River is low these days, as it meanders along the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa. Mpho, 24, stared down the crocodiles on its sandy banks as she waded across, her 1-and-a-half-year-old daughter cradled in her arms.
After that, the 3-meter high fence on the South African side of the border was hardly an obstacle at all. The former apartheid-era government in Pretoria erected what had been an electric fence years ago. The white leadership wanted to keep resistance fighters from the rest of Africa from making it into South Africa. Today huge holes rent the barbed-wire barricade and more than 15,000 Zimbabweans make their way through every month.
Mpho made her way down the R572 highway between Pont Drift and Musina, carrying her daughter Patricia, clad in a yellow anorak, on her hip -- and looking for work. Even as mobs viciously attacked foreigners in many other parts of South Africa in recent weeks, in the northern part of the country there is a demand for immigrant labor. The white cotton fields shimmer under the sun awaiting harvest.
"In Zimbabwe I couldn't get anything to eat for myself or my daughter. Anyone who can't show a membership card of the ruling Zanu-PF party is no longer served in the shops," Mpho says.
The long arm of dictator Robert Mugabe has even extended to the tiny provincial town of Gendwa, the town Mpho had just fled. "We were forced to go to Zanu-PF rallies. If you didn't go you were beaten up." Mugabe's thugs had warned that after the runoff presidential elections, scheduled for this Friday, the ballot boxes would be opened and by looking at the voting cards it would be possible to determine who voted for the opposition.
It is more than terror that is plaguing Zimbabwe, it is outright war -- a war declared last weekend by Robert Mugabe. "We are prepared to fight for our country and to go to war for it," he said at the funeral of a former general. He wasn't prepared to give up his country just because of a few ballots.
Zimbabweans were due to go to the polls this Friday to chose between Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the runoff election. But with the level of intimidation running so high, the vote would have been a farce. Tsvangirai announced on Sunday that he was pulling out of the election hours after his party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), reported that its rally had been broken up by pro-Mugabe militia. "We in the MDC have resolved that we will no longer participate in this violent, illegitimate sham of an election process," he told reporters in Harare.
Tsvangarai beat Mugabe in the first round of voting on March 29 but failed to win an absolute majority. He polled 48 percent compared to Mugabe's 43 percent, that despite a concerted effort by the ruling party to manipulate the poll. The MDC even managed to win the majority in the parliamentary elections.
Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe for 28 years and was determined not to lose what may be the last election in his life. "The ruling party carried out an extraordinary campaign of violence," says Sydney Masamvu, expert at the International Crisis Group in Pretoria. In the end it seems to have worked. "We in the MDC cannot ask them (the voters) to cast their vote on June 27, when that vote could cost them their lives," Tsvangarai said, calling on the United Nations and the African Union to intervene.
It has long been highly dangerous to admit to being a Mugabe opponent, but in recent weeks it has been the equivalent to a death sentence. Women and children have not been spared as Mugabe's thugs have gone on a rampage, killing up to 80 people since the end of March, as well as beating up and injuring thousands more.
It is impossible for people to move about freely in the countryside. All the roads that cross the country are covered in a network of roadblocks where potential MDC supporters are dragged out of their cars or off buses. Simply not knowing the Zanu-PF song or declining to sing it is proof enough. Life in the capital Harare has also become grim. All official vehicles are covered in Mugabe posters, even bus drivers are forced to wear Mugabe T-shirts.
Even aside from the intensified political oppression, life under Mugabe has become a daily struggle. The rate of inflation has risen to a staggering 2 million percent, a liter of Coke has increased in price from 200 million Zimbabwean dollars to 1.4 billion in just one week. A kilogram of meat has jumped from 1.5 million to 7 million Zimbabwean dollars. Postponing grocery shopping by even half an hour, one newspaper calculated, could see the value of one's money reduced by half.
While during the day the capital is just about functioning, when darkness falls life becomes a nightmare for many. It has become so brutal and dangerous that for weeks many people have been leaving their homes and spending each night in a different place.
Even those few election observers that Mugabe allowed into the country, such as those with the Pan-African Parliament, have since voiced their alarm. When they travelled to Mhondoro, approximately 150 kilometers (93 miles) south of Harare, a few weeks ago they were confronted with the case of 29-year-old Dadirai Chipiro, whose husband is the local MDC chairman.
Dadirai was at home alone when Mugabe's thugs arrived. They descended on the woman, hacking off one of her feet and one of her arms, before setting fire to the dying woman in front of her house. "That was not isolated case," the shocked head of the delegation Marwick Khumalo said after his return to Harare.
It is part of a new strategy on the part of Mugabe's henchmen. Instead of just hunting MDC party officials, many of whom have gone underground, they are going after their family members as well. Last Monday, for example, they caught Abigal Chiroto, the 27-year-old wife of the newly elected MDC mayor of Harare, Emmanuel Chiroto, along with her 4-year-old son. They set the house on fire and disappeared with the woman and child, before releasing the boy at a police station.
Abigal's body was found a few days later not far from her house. She still wore a blindfold and her body was so terribly battered that her brother-in-law could only identify her by her clothes and hair.
Even members of the MDC leadership have to fear for their lives. Tsvangirai has been repeatedly arrested and then released a few hours later. The MDC general secretary, Tendai Biti, who was detained upon his return from South Africa a few days ago, is to go on trial soon. He is charged with treason.
The plans for putting people like Biti away have been laid for some time. Last week the justice minister announced that the overfilled jails would be opened. He wanted to make room for "those who will be sentenced for acts of political violence."
The despot in Harare had been fully prepared for Friday's election. The police and military had been made to vote in advance -- in their barracks and under close supervision. "Our superior told us to vote for Mugabe whether we wanted to or not," one police officer from Bulawayo said. After the vote the head of the barracks checked all the ballot papers to make sure they were correct.
Mugabe has been able to rely on his military and security forces. The so-called Joint Operations Command, a group of uniformed hard-liners, controls the apparatus of repression on his behalf. Zimbabwe's soldiers have plenty to lose and are afraid of what will happen after the dictator dies. South African President Thabo Mbeki, who last week made yet another halfhearted attempt to appeal to Mugabe's conscience, appears to have no influence at all on the growing crisis. His proposal, which foresaw the election being postponed and Mugabe and Tsvangirai being obliged to form a coalition government, fell on deaf ears. "In the Zanu-PF and in the military there is a wing which absolutely prefers violence and oppression," says Masamvu.
Experts in Zimbabwe and neighboring countries had long assumed that Mugabe would brutally force through his victory in the election. Tens of thousands of voters, especially in MDC strongholds, were displaced in recent weeks. Many of them had had their identity cards confiscated, and countless numbers were already so intimidated that they would have stayed home on election day even if Tsvangirai had not pulled out.
As for Mpho, she had been planning on setting off on the journey north once again, crawling back through the barbed wire and wading past the crocodiles in the Limpopo.
She wanted to support the MDC. "Zimbabwe needs a future," she said. "I owe that to myself and to my child -- even if it is dangerous." But now that the thugs have made it impossible for the opposition to contest the election, Mpho may have to stay in South Africa for some time to come.