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Gary Younge
'Go back? It's not worth your life'

"It wasn't completely unexpected," he says. "They had warned us that we might be targeted and so we had been preparing ourselves for a couple of weeks. But while we thought we might have to leave we never thought something like this would happen.

"After the murder that was it. We all just stood there listening to what was happening on the radio from the surveillance plane but were told the situation was too dangerous for us to go in."

Choosing what to take with them was straightforward. "You just bring the things that are not replaceable," Mr Griffiths, 52, says. "Things like the sofa and the television you can buy again. But it's things like videos of the kids, family photographs and furniture that we had made especially or which has been with us for generations that you will never be able to get again."

So he packed the few heirlooms his wife had not been able to take with her, gave instructions to his black farm labourers and, along with most of the other white farming families in the province of Nyamandlovhu, he made for the city.

His is just one of the hundreds of migrations that have taken place since the weekend as rural white communities evacuate their farms. White flight fuelled by fear that in the wave of violence that has engulfed Zimbabwe in recent weeks they might be next.

First they coordinate their departure with their neighbours over the two-way radio to make sure nobody who wants to go is left behind; then they throw their belongings into their trucks and race away. They leave the labourers to till the soil.

The exodus has been particularly intense in Matabeleland and Macheke, areas which have each seen one white farmer killed. But each day the conflict spreads, sending more farmers running.

Jennifer and Mark Stobbart have a tobacco farm just outside the capital, Harare. This year saw one of their best crops. Yesterday they saw it burnt down by squatters. "We could go back," they say. "But whatever it's all worth it's just not worth your life."

Another white couple, who refused to be identified, have left their farm near Harare. Their most treasured possessions were their passports - they are heading to Britain. "What are we supposed to do?" asks one. "Sit here terrified all the time thinking, every time I hear a car, is that them coming? Are we just going to stay here and be slaughtered?"

The current crisis has engendered fear but also created a spirit of camaraderie among white Zimbabweans, with town dwellers who are away for Easter leaving their keys with neighbours to pass on to evacuees.

"I have family in Buluwayo," says Mr Griffiths. "I think everybody would know someone in town and all of the people here have opened their doors to us.

"Of course it hurts to leave your farm, your home, your livelihood. But the alternative could be so much worse. The situation at the moment is so out of control that it is just not worth risking your life for your land."

Mr Griffiths says he has been here before. During the "bush war", when whites fought to maintain minority rule and blacks were not permitted to own land, the farms had been under siege. But those, he says, were very different times. "Then we had a police force we could count on and an army that we could rely on. We could protect ourselves then, but now there is no support."

On Wednesday he returned briefly to leave further orders for his black workers and check that everything was alright. He went in a convoy of eight other farmers with a plane hovering overhead to watch for possible attacks.

"It's crazy when you think that there's a fuel shortage, but you just can't take chances at the moment. I was very frightened to go back but I didn't think I had any choice. You can't keep on telling the labourers what to do over the phone. You just can't run a farm like that."

President Mugabe's pledge on Wednesday that farmers can return to their homes for good made no impact on him. "When I do go back it won't be because of a politician's promise but when it really is safe. One of my labourers said he had heard that if I do go back I will certainly be killed.

"It is impossible to predict when it will be. We will definitely stay here until Easter is over and then wait and see how things are. It is very, very frustrating. We want to go home. But for now we're just going to have to wait it out," he says.

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