The dogs come in from the east: snarling, bone-thin mongrels the size of terriers, their howls echoing down the valley to the farmhouse. Following behind them, hacking their way through the bush with sticks and metal slashers, come their owners, six men usually, squatters from the neighboring farm who are ready to beat off the hounds after they have run down a zebra, bush buck or impala.
Three years ago, at the height of the land invasions, when my father first heard the dogs, he hauled out his shotgun and drove to the edge of his property. He fired two shots in the air and the animals fled, their owners in hot pursuit. These days when he hears the dogs, he just shrugs. The game he had stocked his farm with has all been slaughtered in the last few years or has fled through holes cut in the fence by squatters. The gun is now just a small measure of protection for himself and my mother should they be attacked by thieves or bandits who periodically roam their land.
It was with some trepidation that I returned to Zimbabwe last month, the country in which I was born and spent the first 22 years of my life. I was last here a year ago, and then things were bad. My parents had just received a Section Five: a notice that the government intended, with or without their assent, to acquire their 730-acre game farm "for resettlement." They had not yet received a Section Eight, their final marching orders, but their prospects looked bleak. For the first time since the liberation war more than 25 years ago, they slept with a gun by their bed, and my mother had taken to hiding her diamond ring in a window pelmet.
Via intermittent e-mails my father had sent in the interim, I gathered things had got worse: Most of their remaining friends had emigrated, their housekeeper had died of AIDS; the next-door farm, one of the most productive in the country, had been trashed by police and the youth militia, and its 4,000 workers and their families had been made homeless. The bush was rapidly closing in on my parents.
This is Zimbabwe 25 years after Robert Mugabe came to power. Initially he was seen as a unifier, and my parents, longtime liberals, chose to stay on, even as 150,000 of the 250,000 whites fled, unwilling to live under black rule. Despite a decade of relative prosperity, the last four years have seen the country descend into political turmoil and economic ruin. After losing a referendum in 2000, Mugabe accused whites of being racist colonialists and began violently seizing their farms. Blacks who opposed the regime suffered even more.
The government has become increasingly corrupt, violence is endemic, human rights violations are among the worst in the world. Despite all this, race relations are surprisingly good. Most whites and blacks tend to see the wild rantings of the regime for the cheap opportunism they are.
My parents' farm is in the Eastern Highlands, four hours east of Harare, close to the Mozambique border. It was early evening, under a blood-red sunset, when I arrived, and my parents were locking their front gate. There were uniformed guards on the perimeter, and I saw the fence around their house had been electrified. "We've just been to a farewell," my mother laughed. "Soon we'll be the only ones left!" Today, 3 million of us live outside the country. In Harare, they call London "Harare North."
My parents refuse to leave. "We are Zimbabweans, this is our country," they say. My mother was born in Zimbabwe and my father, a South African, moved there in the 1960s. But they no longer rail against those whites who do leave. "We can't blame anyone for going," said my mother.
My parents' rental cottages are routinely burgled, entire living room sets and fridges dragged away through the bush. When my mother phoned the police about one robbery, the officer in charge barely stirred: "I have no car," he said. "Can you pick me up?" That's Zimbabwe: Just when you think it's Orwellian nightmare, it turns into Evelyn Waugh farce.
It is hard to imagine that just a few years ago Zimbabweans, black and white, stood strong in the face of the political corruption of Mugabe's government. Even during the height of the 2001-2003 violence, the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change, was ascendant; people really believed change was coming. The 2002 presidential elections felt as momentous as South Africa's in 1994. Despite threats and intimidation, people lined up in the millions to vote, and for the first time in 22 years whites -- my father included -- moved out from behind their high walls and sports clubs and got involved in the campaign.