The grinding poverty of landless squatters appears to be at the root of the savage murders of 16 white missionaries on two farms here last Thursday. The killings provided strong evidence that Zimbabwe's ``dissident'' rebels are exploiting the grievances of impoverished peasants in their campaign to destabilize Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's government.
The dissidents left behind a letter demanding ``all people from Western, capitalist-oriented countries'' leave and ``the land be given to the workers and peasants to till,'' said the home affairs minister.
Like many of Zimbabwe's wealthy commercial farmers, the missionaries' Pentecostal ``community of reconciliation'' ran into conflict with squatters on the two farms about 30 miles south of Bulawayo. Many of the squatters were workers the new owners had laid off.
Tension rose at the religious commune. According to farm workers at the Olive Tree and New Adam farms, there was a meeting between one of the missionaries and squatters late last year. About the same time, a group of dissident gunmen robbed the missionaries.
Then a week ago, the governor of Matabeleland South Province, Mark Dube, informed the squatters that they were being moved to state farms. The squatters' leader reportedly vowed never to leave and warned that ``these missionaries will not eat their next sacrament.''
Shortly thereafter, late at night on Nov. 25, a 20-man unit of axe-wielding dissidents killed two Americans, one Briton, and 13 Zimbabweans, including four children and a six-week-old baby. Two children survived.
The grisly murders marked one of Zimbabwe's worst massacres since independence in 1980: More than 70 white farmers have been killed since then.
They also reflected the apparent growing awareness of the dissidents that they can seek grass-roots backing by targeting white farmers as symbols of the government's failure to resettle hundreds of thousands of people on fertile land.
``They want us off the land,'' said one white farmer. ``If this business continues, maybe they will get their wish.''
Land is what most Zimbabwean peasants believed the 15-year independence war against white-ruled Rhodesia was all about. Mr. Mugabe's Zimbabwean African National Union (ZANU) came to power in the 1980 elections on a platform of returning land to the black majority.
So far, however, the results of an ambitious agrarian reform have been disappointing to many blacks.
Just one-quarter of a planned 160,000 black families have been resettled, while several thousand big commercial farmers own 33 percent of Zimbabwe's land. Barren communal lands, about 42 percent, are home to 800,000 peasants. There are an estimates 100,000 squatters.
Nowhere is the plight of Zimbabwe's landless more wretched than in Matabeleland, the drought-stricken home of the minority Ndebele people.
With the country's population rising at more than 3 percent annually, the hunger for arable land is spreading. White farmers, who work some of the best soil, are under intense pressure from squatters and dissident gunmen to leave.
Traditional wisdom paints the dissidents as former guerrillas of the opposition Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) party who are disgruntled with Mr. Mugabe's decision to keep ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo out of government and who are sponsored by South Africa.
The man the government named as the gang leader, Morgan Nsingo, alias Gayiguso, is a former ZAPU guerrilla. But the ruling party did not, as it often has, attempt to link ZAPU to the massacre. And the home affairs minister has offered no evidence to back his claim that the dissidents are supported by South Africa.
Last week's attack came at a critical time for Zimbabwe. ZANU and ZAPU sources say that after two years of bitter negotiations, they have reached agreement on a merger that will bring Dr. Nkomo and several top aides into the government.
Further, the 47,000-strong Army is under increasing strain, because of its commitment of up to 10,000 troops to neighboring Mozambique in the 12-year-old war against rebel efforts to overthrow that government.
Mozambican rebel units have recently crossed into eastern Zimbabwe. As a result, military spending is rising rapidly and draining an economy that banking sources say will decline 3.5 percent this year. Unemployment is soaring.
Government policy on the squatters has been tough. Police, sometimes with Army backing, have moved in to flatten settlements, say human rights activists.
Two days after the massacre, the home affairs ministry ordered all squatters in Matabeleland South Province to move to state farms, where, it said, ``they can be watched.'' But by then, the squatters had fled into the surrounding hills.