Matabeleland: home of the brave. Farmers form posses, militias to protect their way of life

Things are different down here in Matabeleland. Unlike northern Zimbabwe, this is a land still at war. A military checkpoint was in position at the turnoff, but after simply checking our IDs, an officer waved us through. The paved road laced through miles of dry low grasslands until we reached Nyamandhlovu, a neat but sparse cattle station along the main railway line from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls.

It reminded one of the American West. Or Argentina, perhaps. But the settlement's English-style post office, rural council depot, and police station were all protected by security fencing. At the store, I asked how to get to the Woods' family homestead. ``It's about 20 kilometers up that road,'' one of the Africans said. ``But you can call them and they'll send someone down to pick you up.''

During the trip from Harare to Bulawayo, a drive of some 250 miles, one began to sense the contrast between the north's more formal, dominant Mashonaland and the south's more traditional, minority Matabeleland. Bulawayo, the capital of the region, is a hospitable, easygoing place with little concern for bureaucracy.

Mike Wood, a large man wearing a bush hat, a checkered shirt, and a 9-mm pistol strapped around his blue-jean shorts, was dipping cattle when we drew up. ``Hullo,'' he shouted above the din of mooing and exploding water as the animals plunged into the cement trough. ``I'll be with you as soon as I've finished the rest of this bunch.''

It was then that I noticed the militiamen. Four of them in bush hats and fatigues standing at different points around the cattle pens, cradling G-3 assault rifles. Wherever Mr. Wood moved, they moved. ``That's the way we farm down here in Matabeleland,'' he quipped in a drawling Zimbabwean accent.

Earlier this year, Matabeleland's commercial farmers were granted permission by the government to establish their own militia force, now 220 strong, as added protection against armed ``dissidents'' or ``bandits.'' At a braai (barbecue) the next day at the Nyamandhlovu's farmers' club, it was a strange sight to see families arrive in pickups, armed militiamen perched at the back, their blond-haired children between their knees.

Since independence in 1980, said Wood, president of the Matabeleland chapter of the Commercial Farmers' Union, 40 whites and hundreds of Africans have been murdered by the gangs. Many of the bandits are believed to be former guerrillas of the Ndebele tribe, which fought alongside the Shona people for independence from the white-minority Rhodesian government.

The Woods, who have three children, live behind a reinforced security fence -- a still-needed relic of the war that ended six years ago. They are connected with some 40 other homesteads by an ``agric-alert'' radio system. Both morning and night, Wood, or his wife, Tricia, takes roll call. ``If somebody doesn't answer, we'll try by phone. But if it looks as if we've got a problem, then we check it out,'' said Wood.

Whites are considered ``soft targets'' for the bandits, Wood explained. ``You see, their ammunition is old or running out. They know that they can get more arms by attacking us. They attack buses or villages to get food and money.'' The bandits also know that hitting whites earns them publicity. ``You don't hear much about all the Africans getting killed.''

One of the reasons behind this lack of publicity, human rights sources in Harare maintain, is that past atrocities committed by the security forces, notably the notorious Fifth Brigade.

``There's still no love lost between the two tribes,'' said one source. ``The government killings may have stopped, but the discrimination continues.''

Indeed, it was a recent spate of white murders that prompted Wood and other farmers to form a militia. Last October, the bandits ambushed a homestead, murdering the farmer, his wife, and an African foreman. When the alert went out, the farmers immediately sent out a ``stick,'' or posse of men. ``You just drop everything and go,'' said Wood. Most whites still belong to the special constabulary formed during the war.

Four days later, the trackers caught up with the band and ``took out'' (killed) the leader. ``This aroused a lot of controversy, whether whites should get involved doing this sort of thing or not,'' said Wood. ``But we felt it was our duty. We made it known that if anything happens to our families or our people [the African workers], we will physically go out and get these bandits.''

Toward the end of December, another white was killed -- this time allegedly by Gwasela, an infamous bandit leader said to be responsible for the disciplinary murders of 62 blacks in 1985 alone. Again, a posse of farmers set out to hunt him and his bandits down. But the posse failed to find them.

When two more whites were killed in January, the farmers complained to the Home Affairs Ministry. But the government said that its security forces were too limited to provide the sort of security the farmers knew during the war. ``So we decided to take matters into our own hands,'' said Wood.

The government gave them the go-ahead to set up a militia under Army control. Since then, there have been no attacks, but the Woods and other farmers and their families remain cautious. They avoid traveling after 5 p.m., and prefer dinner guests to sleep over rather than drive back at night.

According to Wood, some 300 Matabeleland farmers have left since independence. Three years ago, a group of 25 abandoned their land because of the security situation in their district. ``They just packed up and left en bloc,'' he said. Other farmers have moved into town and are trying to run their operations from there. ``But I think that's more dangerous. You've got to know what's going on on your land, and the only way you can do that is by living there.''

The 400 farmers who remain are a tough, spirited lot. Both blacks and whites in Matabeleland feel that the government sees no point in encouraging investment in their region as long as the security situation continues. ``Just imagine if we took that attitude,'' said Wood. ``We'd get nowhere.'' As a result, Harare politicians often regard the whites as collaborating with the Ndebele against the Shona -- two minorities against a majority.

For most farmers, it is a battle just to survive. During drought years, some have to take on second jobs to make ends meet. The security situation has not helped. And one wonders what will happen in the long run should South Africa decide to destabilize the region, as some fear, by backing organized dissidents operating in southern Zimbabwe.

Many farmers stoically claim they have no intention of being frightened off their land, even though their lives are at risk. Sitting on the veranda, Tricia Wood said: ``You know, it's not always easy. We managed to live with it through the war and you learn to live with it now. If it happens, it happens.''

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