"We were sitting our exams when we heard the singing. We heard them coming down the road towards the school, and we started to shake. Some of us began to cry. We wanted to leave the school, but the teacher told us to stay, and that everything would be all right.
"In the end they passed by the school. But we couldn't think of anything else for the rest of the exams."
Lolu, a 12 year old student, tells me of her encounter with the ZANU-PF militia, toyi-toyiing, chorusing, through the streets of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest town. This ZANU-PF mob is made up of poor men from the towns and the countryside, willing to serve in the militia by the promise of food and employment at a time when there is little of either. The government has set up 146 militia bases around the country, and the militiamen have been responsible for much of the brutal intimidation which has marked the run-up to the elections in Zimbabwe later this month.
Robert Mugabe, the incumbent president, needs to win the election. The people of Zimbabwe, and the international community, want him not to, though for very different reasons. Mugabe has turned Zimbabwe into a fascist state. Pass laws, arbitrary arrests, the freewheeling use of the judiciary, and a nauseating propaganda campaign against dissent, queers and non-blacks have poisoned the country.
The international community is worried because the legitimate question of land rights, and the peasant land seizures, harnessed, manipulated and coopted by Mugabe after he realised that he couldn't stamp it out, threatens to contaminate the region. And the international community doesn't like the idea of property rights being violated, even if it is to give land to the landless. A UN source put it this way: "The reason that everyone is scared about what will happen in Zimbabwe is because it reopens all the wounds of colonialism, not only here but in the North. In Scotland, they're calling Mugabe 'McGabe', and they're asking for land back there. The international community are going to have to decide what to do with those [landed white people] born innocent, but guilty through colonialism'.
The struggle in Zimbabwe isn't, however, a transparent war of good against evil, though. The opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, have their counter-militia, who have been violent in kind. All Zimbabweans are fully entitled to practice self-defence, of course. But the MDC have been pro-active in their intimidation. And most disturbingly, some on the receiving end have been dissenters in their own ranks. Munyaradzi Gwisai, the MDC MP for Highfield, and an outspoken member of the International Socialist Organisation has been targeted by the MDC for "betrayal".
The stories of thuggery abound from both sides. People being killed and buried in latrines. Factions driving their trucks into political funeral corteges. MDC supporters having their party's initials carved into their backs with knives. All the while, intimidated, raped, and "disappeared", the population is terrorized. Teachers in rural areas, mainly women, bear the brunt.
People are holding their breath until after the elections, on 9 and 10 March. Increasingly, though, the election seems irrelevant. It's what will happen afterwards that's important.
"Both sides want matyrs. If Mugabe has some of his supporters killed, his regime will have an excuse to fight back. And [Morgan] Tsvangirai [the leader of the opposition] would benefit from a few MDC matyrs, to bring in the international community", says a leading student activist. "Either way, it's the students and the youth who are going to be cannon fodder."
A few of them know what they're going to be used for. They're not stupid. They're the ones who will stay home in the week after the elections. And yet there's desperation here. HIV/AIDS claims its largest numbers in the 18-30 age group. There is little chance of formal employment. And all other avenues of protest have been closed off.
And so the lambs chorus to the slaughter.
There's no surprise moral in this story. In war, this war between neoliberalism and fascism, it is, as ever, the poor, women and the young above all who are the ones who are going to die.
'Zim Admin' is part of the Zimbabwe Indymedia Collective, and needs to remain anonymous, along with many of the sources in this article, to avoid attracting unwanted government attention. The Zimbabwe Indymedia site is online at http://zimbabwe.indymedia.org