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Exclusive: Excerpt from Douglas Rogers' new book "The Last Resort"
After two hours we came to a series of low, windowless cement buildings fronted by the parched grass of a soccer field. It was the Buhera high school, and the rally, I learned, would be held on the field. A white tent covering a row of dirty plastic chairs had been erected beside one goalpost. We were in the middle of nowhere; scrubby bush and sand stretched to the horizon.
I had always been under the impression that the MDC was an urban party, strong in the cities and among the young and the educated, but with little support in rural areas, where an older population with deep memories of the horror of the liberation war supported ZANU-PF, the party that had won freedom from white rule. And yet by midday 5,000 people had gathered on that field in the blinding sun, many of them old men and women, wizened as prophets. They arrived like pilgrims – on foot, in creaking donkey carts, emerging from the thorny bush around us, dusty and bedraggled, yet triumphant. One old man smiled as he told me he had walked throughout the night, more than 20 miles to hear Tsvangirai. He called him ‘my president’.
I left my notebook and tape recorder in the truck, bummed more cigarettes from Sydney, and sat, a little self-conscious, on the grass to the side of the field, the only white person in the world, it seemed, apart from Brian.
Tsvangirai arrived suddenly and without fanfare in a bulletproof red Isuzu twin-cab. He stepped out looking busy and purposeful in a floral dress shirt and a black leather cowboy hat. A frisson of excitement rippled through the crowd, a murmur that rose to a crescendo of whistles and open-hand salutes. He waved as he walked with his wife, Susan, two bodyguards, and Brian and T, and took his seat under the tent. Sydney sat at the back of the tent, the only official reporter present.
The rally turned out to be more a traditional Shona celebration than dull political stump speech. The crowd and the activists ran the show.
Slogans were chanted in Shona by an activist near the stage, and the crowd responded, knowing every word. Since the MDC’s formation in 1999 its manifesto, as its name suggested, had been democratic change, and the most common slogan at a rally, done in call-and-response style between an activist and a crowd, was ‘Chinja maitiro! Maitiro ako ayo chinja, hezvoko
bwaa!’ Change your deeds, bad ones, your deeds should change.
I knew this slogan fairly well by now, but soon the entire crowd had broken into song, a beautiful, mournful Shona ballad that I saw brought tears to the eyes of those singing it around me.
I asked the man next to me what it was about.
He whispered in broken English. ‘A man and a woman were burned here some years ago. It is to them.’
Tichaona Chiminya and Talent Mabhika had been attacked at dusk, not far from this field, as the sun set. They had been trailed from a local bar by CIO agents and war veterans. Stones were thrown at their vehicle, then petrol bombs. Engulfed in flames, they stumbled screaming from the vehicle and rolled in the sand on the road trying to put out the blaze. They burned to death.
It was the same weekend the farmer David Stevens was murdered. A message had been sent; Zimbabwe would never be the same afterward.
Another song was about Operation Murambatsvina – Operation Drive Out the Trash. Starting in April 2005 and continuing into the frosty mists of that year’s freezing June and July, more than two million Zimbabweans living in slums and shantytowns on the edge of the country’s cities were violently driven out by police and soldiers who arrived in bulldozers and tractors to demolish their shacks and homes. Many of the slum dwellers were former farm-workers already displaced in the land invasions, and after their shacks were destroyed they wandered the country, homeless, haunted, ghostly nomads. Some would have been in this crowd.
It was said that the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who lived in asylum in a posh Harare suburb, advised President Mugabe on the removals, since he knew the destitute slum population was a strong MDC base.
The song described the Operation Murambatsvina clearances in nearby Mutare: ‘Mutare residents were living peacefully until ZANU-PF came and destroyed their homes in cyclone tsunami style.’
I was so taken by the spectacle, the effortless repartee between crowd and stage, that I failed to notice someone standing over me, blocking out the sun.
‘What media organization are you with?’ a voice commanded.
I looked up. A man, about fifty, in a filthy, torn white T-shirt, hovered over me. His face was hidden by the glare of the sun behind him.
‘I’m not with any media organization,’ I said, shielding my eyes.
‘You are! What media organization are you with?’
I stood up now. He had a stringy beard, bloodshot eyes and alcohol on his breath. I was conscious of the people around me whispering and murmuring. For a moment I thought this might be Chinotimba himself.
‘I’m not with any media organization,’ I said, more annoyed than afraid.
He moved his face close to mine.
‘You are! You are a journalist!’ I felt flecks of spit.
He grabbed my forearm and squeezed it, trying to pull me away.
Some of the people around me stood up, talking excitedly now, but the rally continued; our mini-commotion was too far from the stage to be noticed.
I am not a brave person. I try to avoid conflict, to run from confrontation.
But, perhaps inspired by the people around me and the stories told in the songs and chants, or perhaps simply because the man was not in uniform, didn’t have a weapon and was drunk, I pushed his hand off and shoved my face at his.
‘Fuck off,’ I said. ‘I am a farmer. A farmer from Mutare. Fuck off.’
And then, out of the crush of bodies now standing around me, another hand appeared, grabbed mine, and pulled me away.
It was T, one of the organizing officials we had come with.
‘Come,’ he said. ‘That man is CIO. You are safer sitting in the tent.’
I was dizzy, pumped with adrenaline, and more paranoid than ever. I sat next to Sydney and told him what had happened. My hands were shaking.
‘Spies,’ he whispered. ‘Everywhere there are spies.’