- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 9, 2005

HWEDZA, Zimbabwe — They had walked for miles, barefoot and hungry, across the remote plains of rural Zimbabwe where President Robert Mugabe’s dominance was once unquestioned.

Yet this ragged crowd of 1,500 people had not gathered to cheer Mr. Mugabe or any other figure from his Zanu-PF party but to hear Morgan Tsvangirai, the embattled leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Defying years of violence and intimidation, Mr. Tsvangirai is taking his campaign for the parliamentary elections planned for March 31 into Mr. Mugabe’s rural heartland.

Yesterday’s MDC rally 140 miles southeast of Harare, once would have been impossible. The area supported Mr. Mugabe during the guerrilla war against white Rhodesia in the 1970s, and its votes have sustained him in every election held in independent Zimbabwe.

But the crowd’s enthusiasm for Mr. Tsvangirai demonstrated the president can no longer assume their automatic support.

“Morgan, we are hungry,” they sang as the opposition leader rose to speak.

“Here, as everywhere else, we can see there are no crops and the land is not being used,” he said. “We know people are hungry.”

This fertile area, known as Hwedza, offers some of the best farming land in Africa. Yet the fields are empty of crops and choked with weeds. All the white-owned farms have been seized and largely abandoned by their new owners.

The land seizures have also emptied the countryside of people. Tens of thousands of black laborers once worked the white-owned farms around Hwedza. They lost their homes and jobs when their employers were dispossessed. Now they are among the countless thousands of Zimbabweans uprooted and displaced by the country’s economic collapse.

The hardship has bred a sense of defiance.

“Zanu-PF still come door to door to threaten that we will be kicked out of our house if we don’t vote for them, but we don’t care now and we teach our parents not to fear,” said Batsirai Muzondo, 24, who had walked eight miles to see Mr. Tsvangirai.

This was Mr. Tsvangirai’s 19th rally in rural areas since Feb 25. He plans to address another 31 before election day.

For the first time since the founding of his party more than five years ago, he finds himself leading a political campaign that seems almost normal. The violence that peaked before the disputed presidential election of 2002 has subsided. For the first time, Mr. Tsvangirai has been able to move beyond the cities where his support is strongest and campaign in rural areas.

Why the regime has allowed this to happen is a question that mystifies the MDC. A sinister explanation for Mr. Mugabe’s confidence could be that for the first time, the voting station will be run by the army and police who are loyal to him.

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