- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 11, 2002

THE WASHINGTON TIMES

TENGWE, Zimbabwe White Zimbabwean farmers defied a deadline to vacate their land yesterday, vowing to stay put despite a threat from the government of Robert Mugabe to jail them for two years if they defied an eviction order.

A new farmers lobby estimated that 1,700 farmers remained on their land as threats escalated and a showdown loomed.

Lands Minister Ignatius Chombo dismissed the farmers as an "arrogant lot" in a newspaper column amid reports that forced evictions could come as early as today.

"About 60 percent have remained on their farms," said Jenni Williams, a spokeswoman for the new farmers group, Justice for Agriculture.

"We've got no reason to leave. We have the Zimbabwean constitution on our side; we have the moral high ground on our side; and we have the need for Zimbabweans to eat on our side," she said.

Six million Zimbabweans face starvation, partly because of food shortages caused by the disruption to farming since February 2000, when supporters of Mr. Mugabe who said they were veterans of the war against white minority rule in the 1970s, invaded and occupied white-owned farms.

Since then agricultural production has been halved. The veterans have killed 11 white farmers and scores of their black employees.

A government redistribution program has targeted nearly 3,000 white farmers for eviction.

Mr. Chombo warned that farmers who defied the order "would be arrested and dealt with by the police."

"The commercial farmers are a racist bunch which want privileges for themselves only," he said. "The land reform is irreversible."

The redistribution is supposed to correct colonial imbalances that left 90 percent of prime farming land in the hands of whites.

Government ministers and friends of Mr. Mugabe have been designated to receive many of the seized farms.

The High Court threw a lifeline to the embattled farmers this week by ruling that the government could not seize one farm in Tengwe, northwestern Zimbabwe, owned by Andy Cockett, because it had not informed the bank that holds the mortgage.

The ruling could prompt a flood of court cases because the vast majority of white farmers have bank loans.

The Zimbabwean government, however, has shown scant regard for court orders in the past.

Moreover, there is little Mr. Cockett can do if veterans lurking outside the gates of his farm decide to take the law into their own hands.

Mr. Cockett's farm has been allocated to a leading member of Mr. Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party.

"They can come in tonight and chase us off," he said. "No one knows what's going to happen."

Like hundreds of white farmers, Mr. Cockett who bought his farm in 1983, three years after independence has been a virtual hostage of the veterans for more than a year and a half.

They have stolen much of his equipment, intimidated and threatened him, and driven away many of the farm animals.

A large section of pasture was also burned, probably by the veterans, who commonly use arson as a tactic.

Forced by the acquisition order to stop farming in early June, most of Mr. Cockett's crops have withered and died. Between Tengwe and Harare, 100 miles to the south, the roads were once lined with flourishing wheat and coffee.

Virtually all the crop is ruined, and the once pristine fields have become dust bowls.

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