In this country, where 19 people have been killed in recent weeks by government supporters, even children know the political score.
On Tuesday at Mapfeni Primary School, about 20 miles east of the capital, Harare, a truck arrived full of young men in the ruling ZANU-PF party T-shirts, armed with sticks and axes. Their mission: find and beat teachers supporting the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Without need of explanation, the children began running and screaming. The teachers, then clustered in a staff meeting to discuss growing insecurity, saw the disturbance and fled, according to Jonathan, one of the teachers. He is who now is in hiding along with some 45 other people who sought refuge at an MDC organizer's home east of Harare.
"We heard they had a list of teachers supporting MDC. I am afraid. I cannot go back there," he says.
Teachers, widely respected in rural Zimbabwe, have become the latest target in an increasingly violent, methodical campaign by Zimbabwe's ruling party to intimidate anyone opposing the 20-year reign of autocratic leader, President Robert Mugabe.
"The violence is twisting. They are now targeting each and every person and institution who has a conscience against ZANU-PF," says Munyaradzi Bidi, director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association, which has trained and deployed hundreds of human-rights activists across the country, including many teachers.
Zimbabwe's crisis began in February, when veterans of the Southern African nations 1980 war of independence began occupying white-owned commercial farms. They were ostensibly fulfilling a long-standing hunger for land among the nation's black masses.
But those veterans, along with legions of paid ZANU-PF supporters, have become an army of political troops who are beating opponents and hunting for alleged MDC organizers. They also conduct violent re-education sessions in which suspected opponents are beaten, made to chant party slogans, and forced to beat other suspected MDC supporters.
Analysts say these latest tactics bode poorly for upcoming parliamentary elections in which the opposition party was likely to do well.
"It seems like the violence is getting worse," says Hurst Hannum, professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "The fact that they are going to round up people - possibly hundreds of thousands - in these so-called 're-education camps' hints that elections will be farcical."
According to Mr. Bidi, the campaign of violence has moved beyond farm workers to other key groups supporting MDC.
Dozens of schools have been closed after teachers, some of whom have been active MDC organizers, were attacked in recent weeks. In Marondara district, 60 miles east of Harare, war veterans sent a chilling letter to all school principals in the area demanding that they report today to an occupied farm that is the veterans' regional headquarters.
Similar demands are going out to other districts, which is closing down schools as veterans hunt MDC teachers.
But the campaign is not only against teachers. Religious leaders are also under threat.
Northeast of Harare, United Methodist Church congregations have been attacked because ZANU-PF thinks they are supporting the United Party, led by Bishop Abel Muzerewa.
"It is very disturbing. They are even targeting the clergy. This has nothing to do with the land issue. The land issue is not an issue but a political gimmick," Bidi says.
White farmers are increasingly pressured to bring their workers and themselves to ZANU-PF rallies at which they are paraded and made to chant ZANU-PF slogans and denounce the MDC. State television and newspapers cover the denunciations as news of growing ZANU-PF support.
"This is a party that plays hardball and is completely ruthless." says Tony Reeler, clinical director at Amani Trust, which is providing medical and legal help to victims of the violence.
"Health workers are terrified. We have lots of people unwilling to even treat MDC victims of violence for fear it will look like favoring them," Mr. Reeler says.
He, Bidi, and others have been lobbying international organizations to immediately begin sending observers rather than wait and simply observe the casting of ballots, as is the usual practice in African elections.
They argue that the election is literally being fought now, and only a massive international presence could halt the violence and intimidation.
"We are in such a situation that to talk about free and fair elections, given the current state of affairs, I think we are just fooling ourselves," Morgan Tsvangirai, former labor-union leader and head of the MDC, said yesterday.
Mr. Tsvangirai has long argued that an election boycott would just play into the hands of Mugabe's violent regime. But yesterday, he called a press conference to announce that his party's leaders would have to consider withdrawing from parliamentary elections, for which no date has been set. Observers expect them to take place by late June however.
"We have now reached a stage here we have to review that [stance.]" Tsvangirai announced.
But, "it's almost always a mistake not to participate in elections," Professor Hannum says, "Pressure is now being put on Mugabe ... so, the opposition should wait until the elections get closer to make any decisions. If this is a tactic to get Mugabe to moderate his position, I'm afraid they might be wasting their time."
Along with an election boycott, the MDC "will also discuss whether something should be considered in the form of mass action," said Tsvangirai.
That mass action may come Saturday at a planned mass demonstration by the National Constitutional Assembly, a civic body formerly led by him. The last NCA rally on April 1 turned bloody as police allowed hundreds of war veterans to attack thousands of peacefully marching NCA protesters with clubs and iron bars.
The violence is producing an increasing number of internal refugees, although no one knows just how many. "The hope is that all of this will bounce back in their faces," Reeler says of the government supported violence. "People are sick of it. That gut response just may produce 5 million voters who may say no to ZANU-PF tactics," he says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society