Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Aid Groups Warn of Rural Genocide

Relief workers, struggling to reach areas hit by ZANU-PF violence, say conditions rapidly deteriorating.
By Yamikani Mwando
Humanitarian agencies in crisis-torn Zimbabwe have been forced to scale down operations in the areas where the need is greatest because of post-election violence triggered by the electoral defeat of ZANU-PF.

Frontline workers say they are failing to access areas affected by the violence. Although thousands of Zimbabweans have fled from their rural homes, those who have stayed behind are in dire need of aid, including food, but relief workers cannot reach them.

Veterans of the 1970s war of liberation and ruling party militias have been accused of placing roadblocks and imposing curfews in rural areas that were previously seen as ZANU-PF strongholds but where residents voted for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, in the country’s parliamentary and presidential elections in March.

Faith-based groups that have been at the forefront of relief work, feeding hungry families in rural areas since independence in 1980, complain their efforts are being hampered by marauding vigilantes. The violence grew worse after it emerged, even before the official announcement of the presidential election result, that President Robert Mugabe had lost the poll to his long-time rival, the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai.

Last month, a joint statement by the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Council of Churches and the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference warned that the continued violence was placing the country on the verge of genocide.

They said that “if nothing is done to help the people of Zimbabwe from their predicament, we shall soon be witnessing genocide similar to that experienced in Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and other hot spots in Africa and elsewhere”.

The concerns continued this month with the Catholic International Cooperation for Development and Solidarity, CIDSE, and the Ecumenical Zimbabwe Network, EZN, reporting in a joint statement that efforts to reach impoverished rural areas that have been hard hit by the violence were proving to be near-impossible.

“Our partners cannot carry out food security assessments in the post-harvest season and are unable to plan properly the appropriate support to the most vulnerable sectors of the population in this coming year,” read the statement.

CIDSE brings together Catholic relief agencies from across the world and has a wide presence in developing countries and those in transition, while EZN groups local faith-based organisations involved in humanitarian assistance across the country.

In the border town of Plumtree, where Zimbabwe shares a frontier with Botswana, there are reports of huge masses of villagers illegally crossing the border to seek refuge as they flee political violence. In the rural areas of Zimbabwe, homes have been burnt down and fathers beaten up in front of their children by ruling party supporters and war veterans.

“Hundreds of people are fleeing the violence,” a priest working with rural communities in Plumtree told IWPR, “and though we have tried to assist, it is becoming increasingly difficult.” He said that faith-based organisations were being accused by ZANU-PF officials and supporters of harbouring opposition activists.

Ever since the emergence of a powerful political opposition that threatened Mugabe's decades-old stranglehold on power, ZANU-PF has accused aid groups of working in cahoots with the opposition in efforts to topple the president, an accusation they deny.

Last Sunday, May 4, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, CCJP, long accused by the authorities of being an arm of the opposition, raised concerns about the situation in the rural areas and the continuing politically-motivated violence, saying this made it impossible to hold a presidential run-off.

The CCJP said the people had been “traumatised” by post-election violence and were therefore not ready for another ballot.

“It is possible people who voted and fled the rural violence will not be too keen to cast their vote this time around,” a CCJP official in Bulawayo told IWPR.

“They are likely to stay home because of their experiences after the March 29 elections. And this will obviously be a victory for ZANU-PF.”

Bright Matonga, deputy minister of information and publicity, recently told the media that ZANU-PF would not give in to conditions set by the MDC for its participation in the presidential run-off. The MDC's conditions for participation would include the presence of observers from the Southern African Development Community, the United Nations and other international organisations.

Amid such a hard-line stance from ZANU-PF, rural voters could well be subjected to more violence, analysts say. This would also compound efforts by aid agencies to assess food security in the affected areas, leaving rural communities facing widespread starvation.

The worsening humanitarian crisis in the rural areas appears to be happening outside international media scrutiny after the bulk of foreign journalists who had been accredited to cover the March 29 elections left the country soon after the polls, when their temporary work permits expired.

The Zimbabwean authorities are accused of deliberately limiting the number of days foreign journalists can stay in the country as part of its concerted efforts to make sure that international media coverage of the post-election period is limited.

Yamikani Mwando is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.