JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – In a dark Zimbabwean cell, walls splattered with blood and floor covered in ice water, Charles Matorera cried himself to sleep, he says. Naked and bleeding, all he could think about was escaping.
Others had been in that cell before — their blood on the walls now mixing with his own, he says.
Thousands of people considered opposition activists by the government have been tortured by police and ruling party militants, hundreds of others have been killed and many more are still missing, human rights groups say.
The government says it uses the police and military only to suppress "terrorism" and denies reports its forces are hounding the opposition.
The violence and economic upheaval in Zimbabwe (search) will probably be an important topic Wednesday when President Bush talks with President Thabo Mbeki of neighboring South Africa. U.S. officials have urged Zimbabwe's neighbors to pressure it into ending the violence and pursuing democratic reforms.
With the violence continuing, many opposition activists have now sought refuge in South Africa, including Matorera, a 28-year-old musician.
Matorera says his ordeal began when he was picked off a crowded road in downtown Harare (search) by uniformed policemen.
His eyes welling with tears, he described them beating him with boots, and hesitates before lifting his shirt to show his month-old scars. "They used their elbows, their knees, taking turns."
Matorera's apparent crime: recording an album critical of Robert Mugabe (search), Zimbabwe's president since it won independence from Britain in 1980.
The musician was never charged.
"They took away my clothes, ... called me a woman, made fun of my private parts," says Matorera. "I started talking, telling them whatever they wanted to hear, just so they wouldn't beat me anymore."
Matorera said he escaped by faking an epileptic seizure while being transferred from his cell, hid in a forest for two days and hitched a ride with farmers across the Limpopo River into South Africa.
Every day new political refugees arrive in South Africa: a woman who tells of being raped in front of her father to punish her for supporting the opposition Movement for Democratic Change; an ex-policeman who weeps recounting how he lost an eye when attacked with an ax on a Harare street.
More than 1,000 people were tortured in Zimbabwe last year and 58 were killed, according to human rights groups.
An Amnesty International (search) report described ruling party youth militia who were trained in torture methods. It detailed beatings given to those with opposition posters in their homes, and torture of family members to get information about political opponents.
Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena dismissed the reports of torture as "very, very false" and said the police investigated all the cases cited by Amnesty and found them to be without foundation.
He also called Matorera's story "ridiculous."
"We would not arrest anybody for criticizing the president," he said.
Meanwhile, Zimbabwe faces political and economic devastation. Once, its farmers grew enough food to help feed its neighbors. Today it depends on international food aid to ward off starvation.
The economic problems are blamed in part on the government's often-violent program to give white-owned farms to blacks.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has accused Mugabe of using "violent misrule" to stay in office. Mugabe was proclaimed the winner last year in an election international observers said was tainted by violence and fraud.