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Gary Younge
Death at dawn: the agony of Zimbabwe

They had come in a convoy of 14 cars and a tractor trailer, many of them carrying hunting weapons.

By 6.15am Olds, 42, was radioing the Commercial Farmers' Union, which represents white farmers, in a state of panic. "They're cutting through my fence," he said and warned the CFU that it looked as though the situation might turn ugly.

Within minutes it was out of control. The protesters had broken down his gate and were at his door. The homestead, which Olds had named Compensation, was surrounded.

The next time he called the CFU his message was short. "I've been shot, call an ambulance."

His appeal sent the airwaves crackling as the local white community got on their radios. Following the abduction and murder of the white farmer David Stevens in another part of the country, they had been worrying about where the protesters might strike next.

Rumours had been circulating in Matabeleland - which includes the area surrounding Bulawayo - that war veterans had been armed with AK-47s. What is more, Olds knew he might be a target; he had already been threatened at least once.

According to one local couple, last month he took "trespassers" on his land to the police station and had them arrested after a court ruled that the land occupations were illegal. The squatters warned him they would get even.

No sooner had the word gone out that one of their number was in trouble than white farmers in the area climbed into their pickup trucks and raced to Old's cattle farm to offer their assistance. One flew his private plane over the house to see what was happening.

But whenever they got close to the homestead they were shot at by the veterans who also, say the farmers, opened fire on an ambulance.

Back at the house Olds was engaged in a shootout with the squatters which some locals say lasted for three hours.

A spokesman for Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF, which has supported the squatters, said that Olds had fired at the veterans, hitting five of them with pellets, and it was only then that they shot back.

Farmers insist that Olds, a father of two, was simply defending his house by the same means that the squatters were trying to take it - through the barrel of a gun.

The police arrived at the scene while the gunfight was in full throttle but did not stop it. The stand-off ended when squatters threw molotov cocktails into the house.

Olds's home started to burn and when the heat became too intense inside he stumbled out into the hands of the veterans. They beat him severely and then shot him twice in the face at close range.

"They killed my son," said Gloria Olds, Martin's mother. "They beat him to a pulp."

Compensation crumbled to a cinder - a smouldering backdrop to its owner's corpse - and the squatters left as they had come: slowly, in a long, snaking convoy edging back towards Bulawayo.

No attempt was made to occupy the land they had just taken. Instead, they exchanged a few, casual words with the police as they left. The police here, say locals, are simply coathangers for uniforms. They did not make any arrests.

White farmers in the area still do not know quite how to react. They have accused the government of arming the protesters and claim it proves that the occupations are acts of political intimidation, prompted by Robert Mugabe's government, rather than a misguided policy to help the landless.

"If land invasions were demonstrations for land, why are people being given weapons?" asked Mac Crawford, the chairman of the Matabeleland CFU. "This is a deliberate ploy to escalate violence."

Crawford believes that the police's inaction makes them complicit in the occupations but he can provide no proof beyond anecdotal evidence.

The home affairs minister, Dumiso Dabengwa, denied knowledge of anyone supplying arms to protesters.

He agreed that the state of law and order in Zimbabwe left much to be desired but insisted that the police were doing all they could to stop the violence.

White farmers are not convinced. Despite the fact that they are hopelessly outnumbered and have little political clout, they have started issuing scarcely-veiled threats that they are ready to fight back.

"The farmers are now on alert and standing by," Mr Crawford said, adding that his members were taking "necessary security measures".

But on the ground, there is a mixture of bewilderment, frustration and despair rather than defiance.

Farmers in the area have decided to move women and children out immediately and are holding a meeting tomorrow to decide whether to remain or evacuate the area altogether, as happened in the Macheke area after David Stevens was killed at the weekend.

"This thing will escalate until somebody takes a stand to stop it," says Chris Jarrett, who has a farm nearby.

"What precautions can you take when 150 men break onto your land and burn down your house?" asked Harry Greaves who lives on the farm next to Compensation. "Especially if the police will not protect you."

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