Violence has been growing in Zimbabwe, as white-owned farms have been occupied by black militants encouraged by the country's authoritarian president, Robert Mugabe. Mugabe is portraying the conflict as a fight against the vestiges of colonialism. His opponents say he is fabricating an ethnic conflict between blacks and whites for his own political survival. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports.
Prague, 19 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The violence and intimidation gripping Zimbabwe for weeks, as militant black activists occupied more than 1,000 farms owned by whites, have now led to murders.
The country's authoritarian president, Robert Mugabe, has openly backed the activists, who say they are veterans of the 1970s guerrilla struggle against white domination. The activists are supporters of Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party (Zimbabwean African National Union - Patriotic Front).
Since Saturday, mobs have shot dead two white farmers, and two black officials from an opposition political party have been burned to death. Despite the killings, Mugabe has refused to condemn the violence, and has thanked the groups occupying the farms.
Hours after the second farmer was murdered yesterday (Tuesday), Mugabe said the white farm owners are Zimbabwe's enemies for resisting the confiscation of their property. Some 4,500 whites own about one-third of the country's little arable land.
Most of the white farmers are of British origin but took Zimbabwean citizenship after independence so they could hold onto or buy land. Mugabe says Britain, the country's former colonial ruler when it was called Rhodesia, should pay compensation to the farmers for their confiscated land.
In a nationwide television address yesterday (Tuesday) to mark the 20th anniversary of Zimbabwean independence, Mugabe evoked images of his people's fight against white domination in describing the farm occupations.
"What we reject is the persistence of vestigial attitudes from the Rhodesia of yesteryears: attitudes of a master-race, master-color, master-owner, and master-employer. Our whole struggle was a rejection of such imperious attitudes."
But Mugabe's political opponents say he has orchestrated the farm occupations to deflect attention from the country's disastrous economy and bolster the waning popularity of his ZANU-PF party. They say he could use the situation to postpone the elections, which are due to be held before the end of August.
Mugabe, 76, is a former political prisoner and guerrilla leader who was a hero when he became Zimbabwe's leader upon independence. He has used violence, intimidation and political persecution to silence and jail the opposition and cling to power. Many view his ZANU-PF party as corruption-ridden.
In February, the party suffered its most serious setback when voters massively rejected a referendum proposal that white farms should be seized without compensation to redistribute the land to landless blacks.
Hundreds of thousands of blacks depend on the farms for jobs, and many of them believe those jobs will be lost if the land is broken up into small parcels.
But urged on by Mugabe, the veterans began occupying white farms the day after the referendum failed.
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change said today (Wednesday) that a number of its members have been arrested or assaulted and its meetings have been disrupted around the country. Many whites support the opposition movement, and Mugabe has called it and other opposition parties fronts for the country's enemies.
Movement for Democratic Change party head Welshman Ncube said "a reign of terror" is being created for electoral gain.
The executive chairwoman of Zimbabwe's independent Institute for the Advancement of Freedom, Lupi Mushaykarara, spoke to RFE/RL by telephone from Harare. She says the issue is not about racism, but rather Mugabe's determination to crush the growing political opposition. She says Mugabe had demonstrated in the 1980s that he was capable of great ruthlessness when he eliminated thousands of opponents from the rival Zimbabwean African People's Union party, ZAPU.
"Basically what we are seeing here is a continuation of what had stopped in 1987 when he (Mugabe) went about and killed 20,000 people in order to kill the opposition ZAPU. So basically, now he feels there's another formidable opposition which has the capacity to take power from him, so right now he's fighting the opposition."
Another opposition leader, Heneri Dzinotyiwei of the Zimbabwe Integrated Program, says Mugabe is pushing the country towards emergency rule.
Britain feels responsible for the fate of the farmers, most of whom are eligible to reclaim British citizenship. Britain has been seeking help from its European Union partners, the UN, the Organization of African Unity, and other allies and international bodies to pressure Mugabe to halt the farm occupations and to start talks.
Mushaykarara also believes that international organizations should intervene.
"The tendency is to say that it's a British problem. Well, it's no longer a British problem, because these white people who are being killed are Zimbabwean citizens and it cannot be allowed in the year 2000 to have people singled out and killed because they just look different."
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said the farmers are not Zimbabwe's enemies and the issue is not a white versus black conflict, but rather popular opposition to Mugabe's policies. Cook said that unless Mugabe restores the rule of law, there will be a slide into mob rule and violence.
A British Foreign Office spokesman told RFE/RL that Britain has provided millions of dollars for land distribution to impoverished black farmers and wanted to help in future land reform. But he said if violence continues Zimbabwe could lose British and EU aid grants.
Leaders of the farmers' union say the government is arming the activists. They say they fear increased violence.
Many terrified farmers and their families have quit their farms. There are long lines at the British Embassy in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, of people applying for British passports.
The British Foreign Office spokesman said contingency plans have been made for evacuating Zimbabwe's 20,000 Britons if the violence becomes widespread.