After years of horror a window is opening for reform, and all of us have a part to play in seizing the opportunity.

Demonstration against the Mugabe regime
Demonstration against the Mugabe regime

More people die every month in Zimbabwe than in either Darfur or Iraq. According to Unicef statistics life expectancy is 37, and rape, torture and killing by government agents is commonplace. But the real tragedy is that nearly three decades ago, when Robert Mugabe came to power, Zimbabwe was the agricultural powerhouse of Africa, feeding not only its own population but exporting food to surrounding nations. It is a country of rich natural resources that the people are banned from farming, forced to watch prime land run to seed while their children go hungry. The international community has been paralysed with uncertainty and so has largely stood by as President Mugabe has commited genocide. His term in office is due to end in March 2008, but after rigging the last set of elections he is now planning constitutional reform to continue his presidency beyond the legal time frame. However, to do this will require the backing of those in his own party. While the president is for all practical purposes a dictator, he cannot survive without a power base, and the personal sanctions imposed on a list of leading figures in the Zanu-PF ruling party by the EU in 2002 are finally beginning to bite. In order to protect their business assets, government officials are being forced to look overseas for sleeping partners to bypass sanctions on their behalf. International watchers are increasingly convinced that Mugabe's backers will desert him if it is clearly in their own financial interests to do so. This means that decisive action on the part of the EU right now could make a huge difference to the course of Zimbabwean history. The highly regarded International Crisis Group is calling for the 2002 sanctions to be extended to the family members and business associates of those on the EU list, so they cannot be used to shelter assets. Many analysts believe that politically Mugabe would not survive the subsequent in-fighting in his party and effective pressure could be brought to bear for reform. At long last there is something concrete that European governments and individuals can do, and every single one of us has a responsibility to make sure this opportunity is not missed. Please visit The Difference blog to sign our online petition and get full details, including a draft letter, of how you can write to your MP requesting that the recommendations of the International Crisis Group.

Life after death

Robert MacDonald describes his torture, the brutal murder of his farm workers and his campaign for his homeland.

It takes a few minutes for Robert MacDonald to answer his doorbell, but the effusive Zimbabwean welcome is worth the wait. "Hello!" he booms, "Good to see you. I trust you are having a truly blessed day!" and with a warm smile he ushers me inside. It is not until he ambles off that I see how much his progress is slowed by injury, the legacy of the beating and torture he received at the hands of a Mugabe hit squad two years ago. Far from the stereotyped white farmer living in a colonial past, MacDonald is not easily pigeon-holed. His wife, Sihle, is black, and his farm was operated on a co-operative basis. Each worker had his or her own field but used the farm's machinery to work the land. At accounting time the workers received 40% of the profits into their own bank account and MacDonald provided investment advice and helped labourers to buy their own properties, as well as setting up a pension fund. This obvious recipe for commercial success was part of what made the farm attractive to Mugabe's land-grab henchmen. "They invaded the farms that were highly profitable," MacDonald says simply. His manner is matter-of-fact as he recounts the details of that 'invasion'. "I was dragged out of the farmhouse and tied to a tree. I was tortured and beaten for three days until they thought I was dead; then they took me to a river and threw me out on the banks. I had a broken leg, broken arm, massive lacerations to my head, my nose was broken, my kidneys were severely damaged. Because of the trauma I still have a swollen heart." It is not until I ask what became of the farm workers that the tears begin to fall. "They were rounded up and put into a hut. The door was locked and it was burnt down while they were inside. There were 28 people. They were my colleagues, my dear friends," he pauses for a moment and then says, more quietly, "eight of them were children." He is keen to stress the point that Mugabe's violence is colour blind. "The white farmers that have perished are in the minority," he says. "The majority of people Mugabe has killed are black people, his own people." MacDonald himself, still tentatively clinging on to life after the beatings, managed to crawl three miles to the nearest village. There some local people went to find friends who could help him. "They patched me up as best they could. We then travelled to the border, partly by vehicle, partly by donkey cart, partly on foot. I eventually managed to swim across the Limpopo River to South Africa. I spent six months in hospital, then I borrowed some money and got the first direct flight I could to the UK." The one thin silver lining to the cloud was that a few weeks earlier MacDonald, sensing the Mugabe threat closing in, had managed to make arrangements for his wife to go back to Bulawayo where her tribe originates from. They bought a house and she moved in with their eight-year-old daughter. "We adopted her," he explains, "when my wife's brother and his wife were burned alive in their home. Their six-week-old baby was found in the ashes, miraculously still alive. We called her Thuble Shia Shelter, which means sheltered from the storms of life. So the political situation has touched every aspect of our life not just some aspects." With MacDonald largely out of their grasp, the CIO (Mugabe's secret services) turned their attention to Sihle and her daughter. "She was told she wasn't allowed to leave the suburb she stayed in, so that she was available to the authorities whenever they needed her," MacDonald recalls. "She was arrested and beaten eight or nine times then released, but we knew that she was no longer safe. I managed to raise some funds so her friends could smuggle her the 400 miles to the border; it nearly took a month before she reached the Limpopo River. When they got there, because of the crocodiles they decided to cross very early in the morning; they're warm-blooded creatures so they don't move when it's cold. Her friends blew up a tractor tube and they pulled my wife and daughter across then swam back. They had God's protection; there was another group also trying to cross further down the river and some of those were eaten by crocodiles. The crocodiles there, that's what they live on. They feed on refugees."

Catholic Bishop Pius Ncube
Catholic Bishop Pius Ncube

Now safe in the UK, MacDonald has two purposes in life. One is to raise the 3,000 it will take to get his wife and daughter from the relative safety of South Africa to be with him here, the second is to build awareness of the situation back home, to try to keep Zimbabwe on the political agenda. In particular he works to raise the profile of Bishop Pius Ncube who was recently nominated for a Nobel peace prize for his selfless and uncompromising opposition to Mugabe. "I first met him eight or nine years ago. Anybody who was propagating a message of Christ I used to visit and speak to. I went to the abbey and I said I would like to meet the bishop. At first they said 'Who are you?', but I was persistent and came back the following week and they took me through to meet him. After that he came to visit me on quite a few occasions and we sat and talked for hours. I am a Pentecostal and he is a Catholic so we disagreed on a doctrinal level but you don't judge a man on that, you judge a man on what comes out of his heart, and out of the bishop's heart there is a deep concern for the disaster that is happening to his people." Like many who are aware of the situation in Zimbabwe, MacDonald finds it hard to stomach that the rest of the world is turning a blind eye to the horrendous death toll. "More people die in Zimbabwe per week than anywhere else in the world, but there is no oil. Today oil is the currency for action." He continues: "The UN has done nothing besides wag its finger. In years past, many people in Zimbabwe regarded Britain as their motherland, and tens of thousands gave their lives in the two world wars, but now they feel abandoned. It could be so different if Britain was willing to take a formal, positive role in spearheading international condemnation and driving the EU's response. Extending the EU's economic sanctions could make all the difference."

The ball, it seems, is firmly in our court. For more details on Robert MacDonald's campaign to raise awareness of the plight of the Zimbabwean people, visit www.lionandspear.com

Interview by Kay Carter. Photographs by Serena Atkins CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.