Violence a Hallmark of Zimbabwean Elections

Clifford "Smoke" Mashayabandi is paying a heavy price for being an organizer for Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

He was forced to sit on hot coals until his buttocks turned purple, his hands were forced into boiling water and his back flayed until the skin was almost peeled off. "It's been terrible. As you can see, I have suffered burns everywhere and that is because I am a known supporter of the MDC," Mashayabandi told Reuters, showing some of his injuries.

The labor-backed MDC poses a serious threat to 20 years of unbroken rule by President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party in elections this weekend.

In the runup to the vote, self-styled liberation war veterans and Mugabe loyalists have invaded hundreds of white-owned farms and attacked opposition supporters and sympathizers.

ZANU-PF has consistently denied it supports election violence and says its own followers have been victims of attacks by opposition supporters.

Mushayabandi campaigned for MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai in his rural constituency 260 km (162 miles) south of Harare.

He proudly describes how he could suddenly appear with an armful of T-shirts and deliver the party's message of change before vanishing into thin air. That was until local war veterans caught up with him one day.

Two veterans found him at the local shopping center, wearing a shirt with the MDC slogan "Chinja Maitiro" (Change Your Ways).

They ripped the shirt off his body and dragged him to a nearby farmhouse used as their headquarters in the area.

For the sin of carrying MDC shirts, his hands were scalded with hot water. For attending party meetings, they forced him to sit on hot coals and then they repeatedly whipped him.

He now spends most of his days in a local party safe house.

"Deep Hate Campaign"

Mushayabandi is among hundreds of MDC supporters living in safe houses scattered across the country. Human rights monitors say more than 6,000 villagers have fled the violence for the relative safety of town and cities.

"It is a deep hate campaign that is almost inexplicable," Tsvangirai said during a tour of his constituency.

"It is a pain inflicted by a government that professes to strictly follow the rule of law and a path of justice. It is ironic they would then expect to win."

In Tsvangirai's constituency, arson has been the weapon of choice by local ZANU-PF militants. Torched villages litter the area and food supplies have been reduced to ash.

"I had five tons of maize, enough for more than a year for my family," said 68-year-old Claudius Chinyama. "We had enough to put our young children through school for the year. Now we will be starting afresh because we do not like Mugabe."

Chinyama's 37-year-old son, a teacher, is in a Harare hospital nursing injuries sustained from beatings during an attack on the family.

Zimbabwe's human rights forum said last week up to 7,000 rural teachers have also fled to urban areas, accused by pro-government supporters of backing the MDC.

Women Raped in Front of Their Husbands

Human rights groups say rape is also being used to intimidate people at a time when AIDS is killing 1,700 people in Zimbabwe per week. The forum said in some cases, wives are raped in front of their husbands.

Police have been accused of inertia when called during or after attacks on MDC supporters. However, they contend that they are committed to ensuring the rule of law prevails.

At least 29 people, mostly opposition supporters, have died in violence linked to the election or invasion of hundreds of white-owned farms by pro-government militants since February.

At least three ruling party members have also been killed by MDC supporters.

"This is a country where you can be punished for greeting your own brother because he is a member of the opposition. So you can understand our members' predicament," said MDC media adviser Nomore Sibanda.