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A blanket of fear smothers hope in battered Zimbabwe

As the ruling party tightens its grip, even a brawny opposition supporter says he's feeling uneasy.

June 24, 2008|From a Times Staff Writer

HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Things have changed a lot in the land of the billion-dollar plastic shopping bag in the last couple of months.

Before the March 29 presidential election, the biggest bank note was $50 million. Now, in the wake of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai's decision to pull out of the runoff vote scheduled for Friday, there is a $50 billion bank note and one U.S. dollar buys more than 7 billion Zimbabwean dollars.

In supermarkets, customers stuck in long lines joke about the economy while cashiers count out thick wads of notes by hand. There are so many zeros on the end of the receipt that it is difficult to read.

But the biggest change is the almost tangible sense of fear.

It infects everybody, from Tsvangirai, who cited the rising political violence in explaining his announcement, to one of his brawny supporters.

"These people don't scare me," the activist said with a grimace. "But this time, they've got me spooked."

Two months ago, people sported opposition T-shirts, their cars were covered with posters expressing their anti-President Robert Mugabe views. Now they wear ruling party bandannas and T-shirts (though many privately say it's no more than an insurance policy against violence.)

The hunger for change that spread across the country like a wind blowing everything before it has now shifted. The new wind has the population terrified.

Armed Mugabe supporters chant the slogan "Win or war" while launching attacks on known opposition activists.

Human rights groups say at least 86 have been killed and 3,000 injured. In private clinics around Harare, the capital, dozens of people such as James, a 60-year-old from rural Karoi, are recovering from horrific injuries.

James said his lip was severely cut and his arm broken in a beating by dozens of ruling party operatives last week.

"These people can kill," he said. "They have no mercy, these people."

In the next bed lay Tonderai, 36, whose arm was heavily bandaged He had been attacked a week ago in Chitungwiza, 20 miles from Harare.

Like many, Tonderai believes it will be years before the country shrugs off the fear.

"As long as this brutal king is there, I don't think things will be settled," Tonderai said.

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