Robert Mugabe Imprisons Babies and Children To Suppress Opposition

Christina Lamb & John Makura

Scores of children and babies have been locked up in filthy prison cells in Harare as Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president, sinks to new depths in his campaign to force the opposition into exile before an expected run-off in presidential elections.

Twenty-four babies and 40 children under the age of six were among the 250 people rounded up in a raid on Friday, according to Nelson Chamisa, spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Yesterday they were crammed into cells in Southerton police station in central Harare.

“This is ruthlessness of the worst kind. How can you incarcerate children whose mothers have fled their homes hoping to give their children refuge?” asked an emotional Chamisa yesterday. “In Mugabe’s Zimbabwe even children are not spared the terror that befalls their parents.”

The families were rounded up from MDC headquarters, where they had sought refuge from violence in the countryside.

Thought to be directed by top military officers, Operation Where Did You Put Your Cross? has prompted thousands to flee. They are trying to escape the so-called war veterans, who are attacking people and burning down hundreds of houses for voting “incorrectly” in last month’s elections.

“What we’re seeing is an undeclared civil war,” said Chamisa. “It’s genocide. This situation is out of control, it’s now beyond the capacity of the MDC alone. It requires the region, the continent, the international community to act.”

Four weeks after the elections, official results have still not been released for presidential polls widely thought to have been won by Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC leader.

Simultaneous parliamentary elections saw the ruling Zanu-PF party lose its 28-year-long majority. The election commission is engaged in the recount of 23 constituencies after regime claims that they had been rigged by the opposition. None of the results has been overturned in the 14 so far announced. Even if the remaining nine were to go to Zanu-PF it still would not have won a majority.

While some Zimbabweans see a glimmer of hope in this, Mugabe has remained defiant in the face of international condemnation. Most expect the regime to announce that no candidate won a majority in the presidential election and to order a run-off next month which Mugabe will ensure that he wins.

“The only game in town is a run-off,” said George Sibotshiwe, Tsvangirai’s spokesman. “The recount was just to buy them time to smash people’s heads in, so when they go for a run-off nobody will even be thinking of voting.”

The regime’s strategy is to ensure that by the time of the run-off, Mugabe would have a clean sweep in rural areas, where 70% of Zimbabweans live. A police officer admitted yesterday that he had been instructed not to interfere with war veterans as they carry out their campaign of terror.

At the same time the opposition leadership has been driven into hiding or abroad. Tsvangirai fled Zimbabwe two weeks ago after he was charged with treason for “conspiring with the British to oust Mugabe”.

“I am unable to return home for fear of my life,” he wrote in The Washington Post last week.

On the ground the party’s network of district officials is being decimated. Tichanzii Gandanga, the MDC election agent for Harare province, can barely walk after he was beaten and left for dead.

Four men arrived at his offices in central Harare at about 6pm on Wednesday. “They told me I knew my crimes and so I had to confess,” said Gandanga. “They blindfolded me, bundled me into a truck, then drove for a long distance, beating me on the head, on the back, everywhere. They played loud music so that no one could hear my cries. I don’t know how I survived.”

As he was being beaten, Gandanga was questioned about the whereabouts of Tsvangirai. Eventually he was dumped in the bush. He managed to crawl to a main road where he was picked up and taken to the head of a nearby village.

For two days Gandanga was nursed by villagers. Eventually he got word to his relatives who moved him to a private hospital.

Ten people have been killed so far, according to the MDC, including a five-year-old boy who was burnt to death in a hut. The first victim on April 12 was Tapiwa Mubwanda, 54, the organising secretary for the MDC for Hurungwe East.

According to his widow they were on their way back to their village when they saw a group of Zanu-PF youth militia. While she fled into the bush with their children, her husband and his elder brother were beaten with rocks. “They said, ‘You voted for the MDC, now we want to do this in order to teach you to vote. You wasted your vote by voting for Tsvangirai. He will never be the president of Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe will remain, so we want to teach you to vote’.”

When she crept out of hiding her husband was dead.

Another MDC activist, Manyika Kashiri, 55, of Chigumbu village in Uzumba, had his foot smashed by an axe when militias stormed into his shack at midnight on Tuesday. Kashiri woke after a bang at his door and rocks smashing against his windows. When he emerged, he was hit with a log by one of the militias and another tried to chop off his right foot with an axe in front of his grandchildren, one of whom was just four.

“We’re seeing a major increase in government-sponsored violence,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

“The ruling party has been sending its allies after people it thinks voted for the opposition. Now anyone seen as opposing Mugabe is in danger.”

One activist, a 25-year-old fitter in hiding in Bulawayo, told The Sunday Times how he and two colleagues had been picked up by intelligence officers and forced to eat a poster of Tsvangirai. “You like him so much, now eat him,” they told him.

“Every day that passes, hope is seeping away,” said an aid worker in Zimbabwe. “This could very easily end up being yet another stolen election.”

Zimbabwe’s churches said yesterday that they had opened up their premises to victims of the violence.

Church leaders worldwide have declared today to be a day of prayer for Zimbabwe. “The current climate of political intimidation, violence, vote-rigging and delay has left the presidential election process without credibility,” read a statement from two senior Anglican archbishops, Rowan Williams and John Sentamu. “Now the people of Zimbabwe are left even more vulnerable to conflict heaped upon poverty and the threat of national disintegration.”

International pressure has continued. The top US envoy for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, assistant secretary of state, has declared Tsvangirai the clear winner of the presidential vote.

Tsvangirai has spent the past two weeks travelling round Africa trying to drum up support to pressure Mugabe to step down. After the weak response from Thabo Mbeki, the South African president, focus has shifted to the African Union (AU). Its chairman Jikaya Kikwete, president of Tanzania, has privately said that he would be willing to consider convening a summit on Zimbabwe.

Britain is hoping to get the United Nations involved and has managed to put Zimbabwe on the agenda of the UN security council this week. Proposals include an arms embargo and sending a UN envoy to Harare “with a tough message”.

At the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair in Bulawayo on Friday, Mugabe was defiant. “When the West, led by the British, shamelessly continue to denounce our country, what is our crime?” he asked. “We are simply defending our hard-won national sovereignty.”

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