The men who pulled up in three white pickup trucks were looking for Patson Chipiro, head of the Zimbabwean opposition party in Mhondoro district. His wife, Dadirai, told them he was in Harare but would be back later in the day, and the men departed.

An hour later they were back. They grabbed Dadirai Chipiro and chopped off one of her hands and both her feet. Then they threw her into her hut, locked the door and threw a petrol bomb through the window.

The killing last Friday — one of the most grotesque atrocities committed by Robert Mugabe’s regime since independence in 1980 — was carried out on a wave of worsening brutality before the run-off presidential elections in just over two weeks. It echoed the activities of Foday Sankoh, the rebel leader in the Sierra Leone civil war that ended in 2002, whose trade-mark was to chop off hands and feet.

About 70 local supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change gathered Wednesday in Patson Chipiro’s small yard in Mhondoro to protect him.

Inside the hut where his wife of 29 years died, women sang softly to a subdued drum beat next to the cheap wooden coffin. The thatched roof had been destroyed in the fire so they sat under the open sky. The lid could not be closed because Dadirai Chipiro’s outstretched arm had burnt rigid. Her charred hand was found as women swept the hut.

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