TEMBISA, SOUTH AFRICA — They were some of the toughest front-liners in Zimbabwe's opposition, people who previously had been beaten and tortured by state security forces and come through it stronger.
Now they are broken men.
Nhamo Musekiwa sits hunched like a frail old man in a chair on a small strip of dirt in this township outside Johannesburg. The 34-year-old wears black slippers and jeans that hang like an empty sack. He had to flee his country after security forces "full of madness" nearly beat him to death in March, along with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and dozens of others.
All he talks about is going home to his beloved Zimbabwe to continue the struggle against President Robert Mugabe's regime and resume his work as Tsvangirai's bodyguard. But the truth is, he can barely walk.
He struggles for breath as he tells his story in a pitch so low it is often inaudible. Forty minutes of conversation exhausts him and he drifts off to sleep.
During an interview with The Times in May, Musekiwa had appeared robust and strong, although he acknowledged having difficulty sleeping since the beatings. By the end of August, he had shrunk into himself. His skin hung off his bones, the flesh and muscle eaten away. His face was like a skull, with deep hollows under sharp cheekbones and a protuberant chin.
"One month ago, I could not even stand upright," he said. "It just hurt."
For his wife, Edna, summoned to his Johannesburg hospital bed from Zimbabwe shortly before then, the transformation was shocking. At that point, he was expected to die of complications of a ruptured kidney, but somehow he crawled back from the grave.
"Any day now, I'll be rolling into Zimbabwe," he wheezed. "I have no option. That's my home. But I just get tired when I walk along these days."
There are others like him, some physically destroyed, others psychologically shattered. This winter, which just ended in the Southern Hemisphere, you would find them in a back room of a Johannesburg church rented by a Zimbabwean anti-torture group, a huddle of gloomy men curled around a hot plate that offered scant comfort against the bone-chilling cold.
Dozens of members have fled to South Africa in recent months, some of them with severe injuries, leaving the opposition a shell of itself with the presidential election six months away. Most of them are afraid for family members still in Zimbabwe, but too terrified to go home themselves. Or too damaged.
The assaults and abductions in the lead-up to the March election are seen by human rights organizations as a deliberate strategy by the Mugabe government to cripple democratic opposition. The Human Rights Forum, which unites 17 Zimbabwean organizations, recently reported that 2007 looks to be the worst year for political violence and torture since 2001.
"I know a couple of people who were beaten on March 11, and to be honest I don't think they're quite the same people they were before," said Andrew Meldrum, an American who wrote a book on his 23 years as a journalist in Zimbabwe before his 2003 expulsion. "When you have had injuries to major internal organs, we would say we'd need some time off, and they need time too.
"They're also frightened. I have seen many people who have left the country. They're frightened that they could be at home doing absolutely nothing and that they could be taken out and beaten again."
Negotiations between the ruling party and opposition over electoral reforms are still going on and produced some symbolic compromises from the government this month, with a deal that saw Mugabe's term cut from six years to five. But many saw it as an indication of the ruling party's supreme confidence of winning an election, rather than a sign it was willing to meet opposition demands for the election to be free and fair.
Under Mugabe, Zimbabwe has endured a long descent into economic chaos, with hyperinflation over 7,000% and chronic shortages of medicines, food, fuel and other basic necessities. Mugabe blames the West and calls Tsvangirai a puppet of white colonialists.
But to his supporters, Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, is simply known as the President, a reference to 2005 parliamentary elections, widely viewed in the West as a sham, that saw Mugabe's party returned to power.
"They got full of madness, and they just wanted to kill us," said Musekiwa, describing the March beatings. He had been beaten several times before, but never like this. "They said, 'There's only one president, and that's Mugabe.' They beat me all over the body using different weapons: iron rods, rubber batons, sticks, wooden batons and clenched fists and boots. They beat us repeatedly until Morgan Tsvangirai was unconscious."