Mugabe turns on old comrades

Liberation-war veterans are the latest targets of the burnings and bulldozers

Night has fallen and a power cut has plunged half of Harare into darkness. We are hunting for fuel on the black market. Like bread, sugar, milk, salt, cooking oil, maize and Coca-Cola, it's in short supply. We sit outside a candlelit beer hall while our companions negotiate with traders at the back. After an hour they return empty-handed: the little fuel available is trading at almost double the price it was this morning.

We drive off and witness a scene of des-truction. An entire market lies smashed and broken. A few hours previously, people had survived here by selling sweets, fruit, vegetables and second-hand clothes. Now the riot police have bulldozed their livelihoods into oblivion. Operation Mur-ambatsvina ("drive out the rubbish" in the Shona language) is under way.

Suddenly, a truck appears with young men squashed in the back. "Youth militias," says our companion. The government is deploying its shock troops to pre-empt revolt. We move swiftly on.

Operation Murambatsvina has now lasted a month. Each day Zimbabweans have seen more of their nation destroyed. A campaign officially meant to clean up the country and demolish illegal structures has left more than 200,000 people homeless. But uncertainty hangs over the crucial political question: is Robert Mugabe - a supreme strategist in maintaining power - operating many moves ahead of his opponents, or sowing the seeds of his regime's demise?

The former, insists one astute observer. "The reservoir that has kept [Mugabe's] system of patronage going is almost exhausted," he says. "And shifting the urban population [who mostly support the opposition] into the rural areas where they're easier to control is a very wise move in forestalling an uprising."

Nevertheless, fury is rising among the group that has often held the balance of power in Zimbabwean politics - and which might do so once more. Many veterans of the 1970s liberation war that overthrew the racist Rhodesian government of Ian Smith, and who later spearheaded the violent land invasions of white farms from 2000 onwards, are now among the victims of Murambatsvina.

In mid-June Comrade Chinx, a singer and war veteran whose jingles exalting Mugabe are constantly played on state television and radio at election time, had his Harare mansion torn down. Witnesses said Chinx pulled a gun and fired shots in the air before police talked him down from his roof - and promptly beat him up. He later had to be taken to hospital.

Jabulani Sibanda, chairman of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (patron: R Mugabe), voices some of the anger building up among the recently loyal. Murambatsvina is "like a tsunami", he says. "People are left with nothing. They are moving to the rural areas where they don't have food or shelter . . . The whole nation fought for freedom, and we are now being threat-ened by our government. They introduce these policies and the people pay the price. They pretend to be God and do away with everything. That is what Hitler thought. He did away with people. He didn't want to see the crippled on the road. We have people in the government who have a fascist mentality."

Sibanda has been suspended from the ruling Zanu-PF party but retains formi-dable support among war veterans. He is careful when asked about a possible up-rising: "People can't rise up when they're still in shock . . . The people are silent, but they have hate, that much I know. People are hating inside their souls."

"The war veterans had to go beyond their naive illusions of what Mugabe stands for," says Munyaradzi Gwisai, the dreadlocked former opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) MP. Breaking with official MDC policy, Gwisai supported the war veterans' invasions of white farms, and he has long argued that the "key imperative" in getting rid of Mugabe "is unifying the urban opposition with the war vets". It almost happened eight years ago, he points out, when urban food riots and a series of rowdy protests by war veterans demanding pensions appeared to imperil the regime.

A two-day strike was called on 9 and 10 June by the Broad Alliance, a coalition of opposition groups, in protest at Murambatsvina. The alliance's convener, Dr Lovemore Madhuku, believes that the growing anger among the war veterans is "very significant". "It weakens the hold of Zanu-PF over its base, and opens room for those who are opposed to them to unite - not as an opposition party, but as Zimbabweans. It cannot be rationalised when you've lost your home and livelihood."

Others are even more sanguine. "They [the war veterans] have served their purpose and are now just a nuisance and a threat to the big boys," says Trudy Stevenson, an MDC MP. "This operation is partly to be done with the whole lot of them."

Additional reporting by Michelle de Mello