HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Still and silent in the darkness last week, opposition activist Sebastian Chipiyo hid in a smelly outhouse, listening, he said, to the agonized shrieks of his brother, Archiford, being beaten just yards away by a mob of ruling party thugs. His colleague, Question Dingo, hid in the hen coop. Others roosted silently in the trees, all listening, terrified.
"I could hear the sound of the beating. It sounded like they were using heavy objects. You could hear it: Bam! Bam!" said Chipiyo, 25. "It was very painful to hear my brother crying. I couldn't do anything because these guys were carrying guns. We heard him crying, 'You've killed me; you've broken my ribs.'
"We couldn't even shed tears. We could not move from our hiding places."
On Tuesday, less than two weeks before Zimbabwe's presidential runoff election, about 15 activists of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change were hiding at the home of Chipiyo's father, an MDC local councilor, in Chitungwiza, a suburb about 20 miles from Harare, after being driven from their own homes in previous days.
At midnight, about 300 ruling ZANU-PF party supporters attacked the house with rocks. The MDC men tossed stones back. But the mob returned with guns.
"The last thing my brother said to me was, 'The situation is really bad. There's nothing we can do because we are fighting people with weapons. I hope God will intervene,' " said Sebastian. He couldn't see his brother's face in the dark but heard the fear in his voice. A chill of fear tightened his own gut.
The mob, singing a liberation war song called "You Started the War," closed in on the house. Sebastian and others managed to scramble over the wall to hide next door, but three didn't make it, including his 29-year-old brother. As the mob beat the victims, they shouted, "Where are the others? We want your father's head," Chipiyo and Dingo said.
The pair saw their three colleagues and an unknown passerby being taken away to a makeshift militia camp where victims are interrogated and beaten. The location: the local kindergarten. The mob then looted and gas-bombed the house.
"The house was in flames. They started celebrating," Chipiyo said.
The body of one of the activists was found the next day, his genitals cut off. Archiford's body turned up two days later with a gunshot wound to the head, witnesses said. The body of a third activist had an ax wound in the skull.
The fourth person was in critical condition in a hospital.
New wave of attacks
As Friday's runoff nears, the regime of longtime President Robert Mugabe has unleashed a new wave of attacks against the opposition in dense urban areas near Harare, the capital, according to the MDC. More of the opposition party's activists were killed last week than in any other since the first round of voting. Zimbabwe Doctors for Human Rights says there have been at least 85 deaths and 3,000 people injured in political attacks since the March 29 presidential vote, in which MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai won more ballots than Mugabe. The independent group has described the level of election violence as unprecedented. As many as 200 activists are missing, according to Zimbabwean human rights activists.
For many here, life has become a terrifying round of beatings, harassment, political "reeducation" meetings and funerals.
Many opposition activists now believe that without peacekeepers, the MDC has no choice but to withdraw from the upcoming vote. The MDC's government council is due to meet today to vote on whether to press on.
"There's a lot of fear," Dingo said. "People are asking if the election should be stopped because there's no security."
The streets of Harare are plastered with green posters of Mugabe and ZANU-PF slogans: "This is the final battle for total control." "100% empowerment." "Total independence."
Accusations of lying
But there are few opposition posters, with the MDC forced to post any signs in the middle of the night for fear of beatings. The opposition also has been denied advertising airtime on the state media, which quotes Mugabe as accusing the opposition of lying about the violence.
Many Zimbabweans display ZANU-PF brochures and posters in their cars. Youths wear ZANU-PF T-shirts and bandannas. But some privately say in interviews that they show ZANU-PF colors as an insurance policy, to avoid attack or keep their businesses running.
The presidential runoff was called after the national election commission said that MDC leader Tsvangirai, with 48% of the votes in the March election, had not won an outright victory over Mugabe, who has ruled the nation since it was created in 1980. Tsvangirai, however, insists that he won more than the required 50% plus one vote to claim victory.