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Gary Younge
'Whites are sitting pretty ... we have nothing'

Two years later he went to war; training in Tanzania and Mozambique, with guns from China and Russia to fight against South African-backed settlers of British descent.

"The war was about land and freedom but nobody was ever going to give us back the land so in the end we had to take it back. I was very happy when I found that this farm has now been gazetted [listed for occupation]," he says.

Mr Mhlanga aspires to be Hitler's heir. Following the precipitate death of the previous war veterans' leader, Chenjerai "Hitler" Hunzvi, who led the round of farm occupations last year, Mr Mhlanga has claimed his mantle as the secretary general of the Zimbabwe National War Veterans Association.

Farm occupations

Emerging from his office in central Harare is like walking into a scene from Goodfellas. Peeling off Z$100 notes(£1.25) from thick bricks of cash, he has slapped a Z$100 note into the palm of the teenager minding his car, given a bodyguard money for petrol, and bought bananas for everyone in the van, all in the short distance it takes him to get from the front door to the kerb.

As we pull out another driver waves in support; others pull over to give him a wide berth, as though for a police car with its siren on.

We are off to see some occupied farms. It is a trip few thought I would be allowed to make. Mention the possibility of meeting the war veterans and most Zimbabweans - even senior members of the ruling Zanu-PF party who support them - wince and shake their heads.

My race has helped secure an interview. But it is no passport in itself. The majority of those who have been beaten and killed by the war veterans are black, as are the journalists who have been targeted by the state for writing stories critical of the land occupations and government.

Some of the land that has been occupied was bought by black commercial farmers.

"If blacks want to support us then we will support them," says Mr Mhlanga, as we drive south. "But if they want to represent the interests of the whites then we will treat them like the whites.

"We don't hate the whites. If they are prepared to share some of the land they have taken and become true Zimbabweans then we have no problem. But most of them are still the same, like the old Rhodesians. They are sitting pretty in big houses and with many farms while we still have nothing."

Few here, including the opposition, doubt the need for land reform in a country where around 5% of the population own some 70% of the best land and employ 65% of the nation's workforce. But few believe that the recent occupations are the way to go about it. The strategy has not only brought lawlessness and political violence to the fore, but has plunged the economy into free fall, starving it of foreign investment, damaging vital agricultural exports, and isolating Zimbabwe diplomatically from its neighbouring allies.

It is an issue, say government critics and some war veterans, that has been exploited by the government in its desperate bid to remain in power.

Dragging their feet

"There is one thing we must thank Tsvangirai [the opposition leader] for," says Mr Mhlanga. "Before he started challenging the government this would never have happened. They were dragging their feet on the land question. It has caused some economic problems. But it is a war and in any war there will be casualties, just as there were casualties in the war of independence. That has to be expected."

It is clear from television pictures of those who took over the farms that many are far too young to have taken part in the war of independence.

"I am 40 and I am one of the youngest war veterans so I know that many of them could not possibly have fought in the war and wherever there is chaos and animosity there will be criminals. But on the whole there are war veterans and there are land-hungry people, and all of them deserve a piece of our country."

The needs and intentions of those who have either taken or have been allocated their plot vary. Some, who live in towns, travel out at the weekend to till their land or, like Mr Mhlanga, are waiting until they have the time to work on it properly.

Only a minority, say even their detractors, are still occupied by groups of young, drunken men idling in the devastation that they have wrought. Many are inhabited by families like the Murapanis, an 11-strong unit spread over three generations who moved to land near Beatrice, about 30 miles south of the capital, last year.

The Murapanis were landless, scraping together an existence in the bush near Chitungwiza, just south of Harare. Their eldest son fought not in the popular war of independence against white minority rule 20 years ago but in the unpopular war in the Congo, for diamonds and regional supremacy, a war that still rages.

Now they have a plot growing mealie-meal and tomatoes on what was once grazing land a few miles from Beatrice.

In June they built two clay thatched huts, bare inside save for the pots and pans that rest on the shelves and a small fire in the centre. Ask Mrs Murapani about the loss of foreign currency because of falling tobacco sales and the farm crisis and she looks baffled.

"What foreign currency?" she asks. "I have never seen a dollar. That money never came to us. Now we can feed ourselves. But we are not quite happy because the white farmers are still occupying some of the land. These people must pack their bags and go; we don't want to see them any more."

The land commander, who acts as a foreman for all the newly acquired smallholdings, says that the farmer and some of his labourers have tried to force them off the land and threatened them with an axe. Mr Mhlanga takes a mental note.

"We will send some people back to deal with them. They must learn respect," he says as we are escorted to the van. "This is when people get hurt and the foreign press come. It is only when they start to resist that we get heavy-handed."

When we get back into the car we realise the petrol gauge reads empty. Mr Mhlanga and his bodyguards head up to the small petrol station in Beatrice. There is no petrol - a shortage that existed before the occupations but which has been exacerbated by them in recent times.

Standing at the door of the staff quarters the station manager is dressed in white Zimbabwean rural uniform: boots, woolly socks up to his knees, and faded khaki shorts with short-sleeved shirt to match. With his belly slung over his belt he has known better days; times when black men would have been either brave or foolish to look him in the eye. But those days are long gone.

As Mr Mhlanga questions him on why there is no petrol he does his best to look composed but keeps his head down. War veterans roaming rural areas in a van are like sparks in search of dry tinder.

Nervous visitors

During our 30-minute stay, black and white people come and go. White visitors, travelling in couples, keep the car engines running, scuttling to the counter to buy fizzy drinks, trying not to catch anyone's eye. Black people, sometimes eight to a van, move to the store front deliberately, hoping the scenery will swallow them whole and render them invisible. A local war veteran approaches with news of activity on nearby farms.

And then we head off, the gauge still on empty, motoring slowly and unsteadily back to the capital. Occasionally, a churning sound from the car's innards gives a hint that we might not make it. Another casualty in a long and complex war.

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