Wielding picks to churn up the sun-baked soil, the shirtless young men looked like ordinary farmers of Zimbabwe's southwestern region, Matabeleland. But six months ago, they were among the most wanted men in the country. Known as ``dissidents,'' they were waging a low-level guerrilla war against President Robert Mugabe's government.
Exchanging their Soviet-made AK-47 assault rifles for farming tools, the 40 ex-rebels are now battling to build a new life out of 165 acres of land at the edge of Nkayi, 170 miles from Harare, the capital.
These men were among 113 ``dissident'' rebels who emerged from the bushlands of Matabeleland last May when Mr. Mugabe offered them amnesty.
They say the turnabout in their lives is another step in bringing socialism to Zimbabwe's 8 million people. ``We always believed that one day we would work the land,'' said Rainfall Msimanga. ``The revolution did not stop with independence, and now we must work to make the revolution a reality.''
Some observers say the experiment at Nkayi could hold lessons for other efforts to reintegrate rebels into society, perhaps even in war-torn neighboring nations.
The 70 additional ex-rebels hope to copy the Nkayi program. Ten want to set up a gold-mining cooperative. The others hope to find unused land to farm.
Mostly veterans of the nationalist war against white-ruled Rhodesia, they took up arms after independence when factional violence erupted between Mr. Mugabe's party, which is largely backed by the majority Shona tribe, and the party of Joshua Nkomo. Mr. Nkomo's party is backed by the minority Ndebele people of Matabeleland.
Last December, the two parties merged. In April, Mugabe decreed an amnesty for antigovernment guerrillas and for members of the security forces charged with human rights abuses. The rebels laid down their arms, the Army withdrew from the region, and most of the violence in Matabeleland ended.
Despite the smooth beginning at Nkayi, many of the ex-rebels remain cautious. ``At the moment, everything is going well,'' said Lantern Mkhwananzi, a former rebel commander. ``But if an incident occurs, we are going to inform the people about it.''
Soon after this group of 43 arrived in late May in Nkayi, it became clear the government felt it could not help the members earn a living without adequate skills, land, and money when hundreds of thousands of other Zimbabweans need the same assistance.
Fearing that the lack of a clear future could reignite trouble, local officials and nongovernmental groups decided to help.
Zimbabwe Project, a welfare group which helps former nationalist guerrillas start development schemes, and the Roman Catholic Church's Justice and Peace Commission raised about $9,000 to buy food, clothes, and tools. The Nkayi district council furnished the land.
The goal is to establish an agricultural cooperative. Local officials hope the project will eventually supply the area with food and jobs for some of about 10,000 unemployed youths in Nkayi district. ``This project ... should be an embryo of development for all Nkayi.'' said district administrator Stanley Bhebhe.
The biggest roadblock ahead is a lack of money for wells, equipment, and housing. But as they cleared tree stumps under the relentless sun, the men appeared determined to succeed. ``We are going to develop this area and become self-sufficient,'' said Mr. Msimanga.
Most of these men were born here, and relations with local residents appear excellent. ``It is difficult today to imagine them running around the bush with guns,'' said a police officer.