Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has sought refuge in the Dutch Embassy in the capital Harare, after announcing Sunday he is withdrawing from the country's presidential election runoff because of what he has called President Robert Mugabe's "campaign of violence," against voters.
The Dutch Foreign Ministry confirmed today Tsvangirai's whereabouts.
Tsvangirai charged that government-sponsored youth militias and bands of self-proclaimed "war veterans" have stepped up attacks on opposition supporters in an attempt to persuade them to "vote correctly" in the elections, scheduled for Friday.
It's estimated that at least 86 people have been killed and 200,000 displaced since the country's first elections in March when Tsvagirai's Movement for Democratic Change party narrowly defeated Mugabe, triggering the runoff. In the weeks since, the violence has continued to grow bloodier, with Mugabe declaring that the bullet is mightier than the pen and that he will declare war before handing over power.
Tsvangirai's decision to step down is receiving a mixed reaction in Zimbabwe. Most civil society groups have called it smart, saying it will spare lives and put pressure on the international community to intervene and stop the current bloodshed. But thousands of Zimbabweans who have already experienced the violence are wondering what recourse they have if they no longer have anyone to vote for.
The following is one family's story as told to a researcher from Harvard Law School who's conducting interviews with victims of Zimbabwe's violence. For his safety, we have changed all names in this account.
Until recently, the perpetrators of violence have operated primarily in rural areas. However, in June, violence entered the cities. Two low-income suburbs of Harare, Epworth and Mbare, have been particularly hard hit. Suspected MDC supporters living in those areas have been threatened, beaten and violently driven from their homes. Many have been killed.
Two weeks ago, I was collecting information on the outbreak of violence in Harare when Malvin, a 37-year-old father of three from Epworth, entered the office where I was working. He was accompanied by his brother-in-law Fanuel. The previous night the two men had seen their homes burned and Malvin's wife, children and sister abducted. Malvin explained what happened:
"I was asleep in my house at midnight. About 10 men in a white twin-cab pickup truck came to the house. They had metal rods, catapults and hammers. They banged on the door of my house. I was able to break a window in the back and jump out. Fanuel also managed to escape."
The two men ran and hid in bushes behind the house. Malvin did not recognize the attackers, whom he perceived to be members of a youth militia loyal to Zanu-PF, Zimbabwe's ruling party. He was sure that they had been shipped in from another district. "In Epworth, the Zanu-PF people don't have vehicles," he said.
The attackers moved next door where Malvin's wife and sister, a widow, were sleeping with their children. The men watched as the youths dragged the women and children from their home and placed them in the back of the pickup truck. The women were pinned to the bed of the truck and beaten as their children clung to them.
Soon the attackers were joined by a large group of youths singing "Hondo-Hondo" ("War-War") and other Zanu-PF regime songs. As the truck drove off with the women and children, the mob, now numbering more than 100, began to loot and burn the houses.
"They used petrol bombs and hammers to destroy the homes," Malvin explained. "They spent four hours trying to destroy everything. They made sure that it was all burned to ashes. Now we only have the clothes we are wearing."
After the attackers left, Malvin and Fanuel reported the incident to the police. They were told, "We cannot give you help because this is a political issue. If we arrest a Zanu-PF person, we will lose our jobs. Go get your friends and revenge yourself if you can manage to do it."
Malvin believes that he was targeted because he is a local officer of the National Constitutional Assembly, a civil society organization that has been pushing for democratic reform since 1997. NCA activists are assumed to support the opposition and have frequently been the targets of attacks by security forces and government-sponsored militias.
As Malvin headed back to Epworth to look for his family, I asked him if he was still going to vote in the upcoming election. Although tears had been in his eyes during the entire hour that I spoke with him, he grinned and said, "Yes, for sure."
Two days later, I met up with Malvin. He had found his missing family members. His children were now staying with a relative in a town 15 miles outside Harare. His wife and sister were in a local hospital, recovering from 20 hours of brutal captivity at the hands of the Zanu-PF supporters. I went with Malvin to visit the women.
The hospital was clean by Zimbabwean standards, and appeared to be well staffed. Even so, as I entered the room, I noticed that both women's sheets were stained with blood.
The hand of Malvin's wife, Sekai, was bandaged, with a splint on the middle finger. She was wearing a beanie that almost covered a cut above her right eye. Malvin's sister, Moleen, had a visibly bruised and swollen face.
Moleen described their abduction: "They pushed our heads against the bed of the truck with their hands. They put their feet on our backs and stepped on us. They pushed our kids to our sides and held them there. They beat us with an iron bar in the back of the truck. This continued until we reached their base."
The "base" that Moleen described was the home of the Zanu-PF district chairman, a man they both knew. His home was serving as a hub for the attacks that were going on throughout Epworth. They recognized many local Zanu-PF supporters at the home. "Some were our neighbors," Moleen said. The women provided me with the names of the attackers they knew, including a few local Zanu-PF officials.
Moleen, Sekai and their children were placed in a thatched room with other women who had been rounded up by the militias. They were beaten continually through the night and the following day.
Moleen explained that the violence was unrelenting. "They told us to lay facedown. They started beating us with irons and with their feet. They were beating us everywhere: face, back, legs, buttocks. They would beat us until they started to sweat and then they would go outside and call another to take over beating us. They took cold water and poured it on us. Then they started beating us again. They never stopped the whole night or the next day."
The children sat against the walls of the room while their mothers were beaten. They were spared from the attacks except when they grew afraid and clung to their mothers. In those instances both mother and child would be struck until the child withdrew.
While the women were assaulted, their attackers threatened further violence and death. "MDC will never rule this country; we want war," they yelled. "You supported MDC, so we want to beat you until you die."
The women claim that during the night the police visited the house where they were being held, saw their condition, and departed silently.
At 5 p.m. the following day, the women and children were released without explanation. Not knowing where to go, they walked to the home of the NCA chairperson for the area, who took them in and alerted Malvin to their whereabouts.
Both women told me that they were suffering injuries to bones and internal organs. Moleen had lost vision in her left eye and could not hear out of her left ear. They allowed me to photograph their scratched and swollen faces and pulled back the sheets of their beds to show me deep bruises and cuts across their hips and buttocks.
As I left the hospital I asked a nurse about the possibility of seeing other patients in the hospital. She blocked my access, saying that I had to consult with the head doctor in the city center first. But when I asked if there were many other victims of political violence in the facility, she leaned close and whispered, "The place is full of them."
In the past week, I have been in touch with Malvin almost daily, trying to keep tabs on his family's condition.
A few days after I spoke with her, Sekai was transferred to a new hospital. Malvin told me that state intelligence agents had been looking for her and she was no longer safe at her previous location. She remains in this hospital, which Malvin says is safe, despite the continued efforts of Zanu-PF supporters to find her.
Malvin's children remained with his cousin for a few days despite the cousin's protests that he had no way of providing for them. The children had only the clothes they were wearing the night of the attack and no blankets to warm them as they slept on the floor at night. Four days ago, the cousin notified Malvin that pro-Zanu-PF militias were mobilizing in his neighborhood and sent the children to Harare.
Malvin and his three children now live with more than 2,000 other displaced individuals in Harvest House, the MDC headquarters in downtown Harare. Like most of the opposition supporters seeking refuge in this office building, they remain indoors, fearing that ruling party thugs might be waiting for them on the streets. They are provided with one meal each day and no assurance that their stay will not be interrupted by a police raid or arrests.
Malvin has been warned that it is not safe to return to Epworth, where the militias are still hunting for him. Moreover, he has nothing to return to, with neighbors informing him that his land is now being used as a second base for militia operations in the area.
Today, Malvin has no savings and no income. Everything he possessed, including a few wads of Zimbabwe's worthless paper currency, was looted or burned by his attackers. His livelihood as a firewood vendor was destroyed as well, when his stock went up in flames with his house.
Malvin, like thousands of other Zimbabweans, is now wondering how to piece his life together in an environment of social turmoil and political uncertainty. Speaking to me in front of his wife and sister at the hospital, Malvin said, "Even if they are discharged, we have nowhere to go. Especially my sister. She has no husband. I am still standing, but what kind of husband am I? I cannot even provide food and clothing for my family. We have nothing."