- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2000

GOROMONZI, Zimbabwe David Stobart and his wife, Gillian, were the first people to vote at their polling station. They did not have far to travel. The polling booth was in the charred ruins of what was once their prosperous farm.
Blackened, twisted metal and deep piles of ash are all that remain of Mr. Stobart's 10 tobacco barns. More than 200 self-styled independence war veterans set fire to them, along with 95 grass huts in which his laborers lived.
The squatters occupied the Stobarts' Atlanta Farm four months ago, and about 30 are still there, as indicated by the "No-go area" warning sign at the farm gate.
Undeterred, Mr. Stobart, his wife and his 200-strong work force turned out to vote. Watched by a group of the squatters wearing T-shirts in support of President Robert Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) coalition, they lined up to cast their votes in the derelict outbuilding that used to be the farm kindergarten and school.
Says Mr. Stobart, 64, who was born and raised on Atlanta Farm: "I had to, to set an example to my work force. They have been through hell. They have been under unbelievable pressure and intimidation. The 'war veterans,' if that's what they are, called them into their camp every night for 're-education.' "
Although the squatters call themselves war veterans, many were not even born when the bush war against the former Rhodesia's white-dominated government was at its height. But they are the ZANU-PF party's shock troops in its struggle to retain power.
So bad was the intimidation at Atlanta Farm that Mr. Stobart offered to transport his workers to another polling station where the atmosphere would be less menacing. They declined.
Among them is Oliver Kumforomo, 50, a tractor driver who hobbled in on crutches, his leg broken in three places and his shoulder blade fractured by the squatters.
The farmer and his wife are the reason the workers here are even eligible to vote at all.
When the squatters arrived in 10 vehicles and began to run riot, the workers fled. The invaders burned all but one of the grass huts and destroyed all 27 of the brick buildings in the laborers' village.
Mr. Stobart says: "At the houses made of brick, they poured fuel under the doors and set them alight. Then they took all the workers' belongings, put them in the grass huts and burned those as well."
His farm hands "lost everything, even down to their identity cards," Mr. Stobart notes.
His wife adds: "We had an enormous task getting their ID cards replaced so that they could vote. But we managed it, and vote they did."
Mr. Stobart has not asked how they voted. But he discloses that, shortly after the squatters moved in, the farm was visited by supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), who handed out T-shirts and caps.
He says: "The laborers got quite fired up by the MDC, especially as they had had their homes burnt."
When the squatters discovered the visit, they ordered the workers to hand over the shirts. One worker was abducted, handcuffed and taken to a river, into which they threatened to throw him. He was later released, but the message was clear.
"I think the labor had just about enough by that time," Mr. Stobart says. "They formed their own 'football team' and handed out whistles. If anyone found themselves being threatened, they blew the whistle and the team turned up."
The huts are being rebuilt now, and Mr. and Mrs. Stobart have returned. But he has lost three quarters of his crop. His main business is as a seed farm, and he is struggling to maintain his crops. His son Michael Stobart, who now lives nearby, has refused to return with his young family.
Mrs. Stobart says: "This has affected us all very much. I caught my 4-year-old grandson singing 'Old MacDonald Had a Farm' the other day, but he had changed the words and was singing: 'And on that farm there were some war veterans, ee-eye ee-eye-o. And they burnt my house, and they burnt my toys, and they burnt my books, and they burnt my videos… .' "

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