White farmer's e-mails detail Zimbabwe farm strife

New censorship laws expected to be passed this week don't deter one woman's mission to help her country.

Cathy Buckle loves her country, even if sometimes it seems not to love her.

In the past two years, as government -sponsored lawlessness has thrown Zimbabwe into turmoil, her sheep, cattle, and lumber farm has been seized and occupied by landless squatters - her family terrorized, and her friends harassed, tortured, even killed. But she is not leaving.

Despite her white skin, she is a Zimbabwean and knows no other home.

"I do not consider leaving and will not do so until there is no hope at all. I belong here, was born here, and have a role to play in this country," she says.

For almost two years, Mrs. Buckle has led a solitary campaign from her computer to let the world know about the growing instability in Zimbabwe. In a weekly e-mail that now reaches tens of thousands of people and is reprinted widely around the world, she has chronicled the campaign of terror unleashed by Zimbabwe's ruling party, the ZANU-PF, against white farmers, their workers, and supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Although a long-awaited presidential election is slated for March, few expect that it will be fair.

The Zimbabwean government has also cracked down on the press, expelling several foreign journalists and denying visas to others. Mrs. Buckle's weekly e-mails - always signed "Love, Cathy" - provide some of the most intimate pictures of a country that has gone from one of Southern Africa's great success stories to a starving and impoverished nation embroiled in political violence.

Because of her dedication to letting the world know about the situation in Zimbabwe - her phone monitored and a harsh new censorship law expected to pass through the legislature this week - Mrs. Buckle agreed to speak to the Monitor by e-mail.

The daughter of a prominent lawyer who was involved in Zimbabwe's fight for independence from England during the 1970s, Buckle began her weekly e-mails shortly after her farm, purchased a decade after Zimbabwe won independence, was invaded in March of 2000. The invaders were men and women who claimed to be veterans of the independence war. They, said they were reclaiming land stolen from them by white colonialists.

About 4,500 farms, including some owned by blacks who have spoken out against the government, have been targeted for redistribution. Buckle's farm, though not on the official list, was among the first of about 1,700 farms to be invaded.

For seven months, as dozens of "war vets" squatted on one of the main grazing fields of her small, arid 1,000-acre farm - slaughtering her livestock and chopping down the gum trees she had patiently raised for lumber - Buckle shared her story with a growing number of readers inside and outside of Zimbabwe.

The war vets severely burned her storekeeper on the face with a hot metal pipe because she could not find her ZANU-PF membership card. They forced her other workers to attend brutal political reeducation sessions. Her 8-year-old son, more sensitive to the situation than she had realized, was plagued with nightmares.

Still, in some ways, she was lucky. Nationally, since the beginning of the violence, nine farmers and 39 farm-workers have been killed.

Trevor Ncube, publisher and chief executive of two of Zimbabwe's independent newspapers, said the content of Buckle's dispatches shocked even urban Zimbabweans.

"The way she wrote it, so simplistically, just telling the story of her life and how she was feeling during the invasions. It was what people needed as a window into what was going on," said Mr. Ncube, who wrote the foreword to "African Tears," Buckle's recently released book about the invasion of her farm, after following her story through her e-mails.

Finally, when her family could no longer live with the terror, they packed up and moved to a house in the nearby town of Marondera, about 60 miles east of Harare.

From there, Buckle has continued her weekly e-mails, corresponds regularly with hundreds of people who have read her story, and is in the process of writing a second book, based on interviews with farmers, about the invasions.

More than a year after her family was forced off the farm, Buckle says her country is slowly heading toward starvation and anarchy. Political violence is increasing as the March election nears and - with much of the country's farmland occupied and the government blocking international food aid, there is little to eat.

"[Last week] in Marondera, there is no sugar, no cooking oil, no laundry soap. Prior to that, no chicken, bread, margarine, flour, or milk," she says. "The country is facing mass starvation - there is no doubt of it."

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