`Disappearances' in Matabeleland help Mugabe's party

A cardboard poster tacked to the walls of churches and schools in Zimbabwe's Matabeleland captures the mood of the people here. It's a poster of an old black woman, holding her face in her hands in despair. Superimposed on her photo is a splash of bright crimson -- and one word. The word means ``we are tired.''

Having been caught between guerrillas and government counter-insurgents for three years, the people of Matabeleland are indeed tired.

Last year, the guerrillas -- who the government says are organized and financed by the opposition party, Joshua Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) -- killed 108 civilians, according to government figures.

In response, the government, headed by Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, has mounted a brutal campaign of antiguerrilla measures, according to church, mission, and aid organizations as well as ZAPU -- measures that have left hundreds of civilians dead or injured.

Moreover, evidence of another undercover government campaign has begun to accumulate since early this year.

Church officials say the government, which is dominated by the Zimbabwe African National Union-Popular Front (ZANU-PF), is systematically abducting officials of ZAPU from rural villages.

Tribal loyalties have given ZAPU a wide base of support among the Ndebele-speaking people of Matabele- land. The party, which holds 20 of the 100 seats in the House of Assembly, is the main obstruction to Mr. Mugabe's plans for the introduction of a one-party state.

The abductions -- in which Mr. Nkomo's supporters are taken from their homes in the dead of night by men said to be wearing camouflage uniforms and usually speaking Shona, the language of most of the country's other regions -- have taken place against a background of a marked decline in guerrilla activity in the last year.

The disappearances have occurred in the two areas where the ruling party lost heavily in recent local elections. Officials of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, a human rights watchdog body, have been receiving reports of such abductions since late January.

The reports speak of the disappearance of at least nine people taken from their homes in the Nkayi communal land, a spacious peasant farming area about 75 miles north of Bulawayo, on Jan. 24. Reports of other abductions in the area are widespread.

In the Tsholotsho communal land about 75 miles northwest of Bulawayo, reports of abductions are more numerous and, officials say, easier to verify.

On Feb. 5, about 20 Landrover vehicles arrived in the Tsholotsho business center in the early evening. That night people from a dozen nearby villages vanished. Witnesses in these villages say that men arrived at about midnight and roused the inhabitants in one or two huts in each village. After brief conversations, the leaders of the families were told to accompany the visitors. Nothing has been heard of the leaders since.

Some of the villagers followed the visitors' bootprints the next day.

The prints led to the Tsholotsho business center, where criss-crossing tire marks had been left by the Landrovers.

The Catholic Justice and Peace Commission has so far confirmed the names of nine people missing. They are working on another 52, who may merely have gone to Bulawayo to visit relatives.

Also being checked is the alleged discovery of graves, in both Nkayi and Tsholotsho, where some 20 bodies are said to have been recently buried. Nkomo's ZAPU officials claim that the graves hide the bodies of the abducted people. The commission, relying on the testimony of relatives and its field workers, has yet to establish the authenticity of the graves.

Meanwhile, the government says the guerrillas, with alleged ZAPU backing, are abducting and attacking members of the ruling party in the same rural areas. Mugabe maintains that the guerrillas are systematically assassinating ZANU-PF officials.

Four such officials were recently hanged by guerrillas, the party says.

ZAPU disputes the government claims. John Nkomo, ZAPU's publicity secretary, says that every person the government has named as a ZANU-PF official killed by guerrillas was actually a ZAPU member, who was only carrying a ZANU-PF membership card to avoid being harassed or harmed by the security forces or militants of the ruling party.

There is little doubt that much of ZANU-PF's membership in Matabeleland is built on fear and is therefore nominal. The fear, whipped up by bands of marauding ZANU-PF youths, has been building since December.

Busloads of members of the ZANU-PF youth wing went on the rampage in the Plumtree area on the border of Zimbabwe and Botswana last December, beating, burning, and stoning in apparent retaliation for the death of a ZANU-PF official at the hands of guerrillas. Ironically, a local newspaper published photographs of hundreds of people lining up the next day to get party cards from the ruling party's office.

In Nkayi in late January, two busloads of ZANU-PF youths went on the rampage again -- this time, says residents, because ZAPU had won all the seats in recent district council elections. Among those beaten up was the district administrator, who suffered a broken arm. Two weeks later, another busload of party youths swept through three villages in Tsholotsho, where they gutted 27 huts and three stores.

Such raids have drastically cut down on Nkomo's political infrastructure. His party once had offices in villages throughout Matabeleland. Now they exist only in a few major towns.

By contrast, ZANU-PF offices have opened throughout the region.

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