After walking several miles in search of work, Martin stops to catch his breath. Sitting on a bench on the outskirts of Zimbabwe's second city, we talk, and he tells me about the troop movement he recently witnessed. He felt the vibrations of the approaching column before he saw it. Perhaps 20 Chinese-made armored troop carriers were heading for the center of Bulawayo, with the aim of quelling unrest and destroying the homes and businesses of those who voted against the ruling regime of President Robert Mugabe back in March.
Mugabe's thugs have become more visible in recent weeks, but they shy away from any naked show of force, especially in daylight. This convoy was traveling under a pathetically transparent disguise. According to independent reports confirmed by Martin, the troop carriers were masquerading as U.N. peacekeepers, with 'UN' letters on the doors of their trucks. But the soldiers carrying heavy weapons in the back were wearing Zimbabwean army uniforms, and they were dispatched to enforce Mugabe's new policy of pushing urban slum-dwellers back to the rural parts from which they come.
Mugabe has lately been looking East for trade and financial support, but also for pointers on oppressing his people, as he follows the lead of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, which gutted towns to make for a more pliant populace. After Mugabe handed over white-owned farms to his cronies who didn't know how to farm, a million jobs were lost and the workers and their families migrated to cities and towns. There are now more people in the towns than in the countryside. This aggregation in urban centers has helped these rural people become more politically aware, and diminished the power held over them by the chiefs, headmen, and political councils -- all people Mugabe has bought off.
The current attacks on urban centers are part of a corrective strategy to drive perhaps two million people back onto the land. Once there, they will be cut off from the rest of the country and at the mercy of government-controlled food supplies. It is more difficult to starve people in urban areas where the outside world might catch wind of what's going on. As one displaced farmer puts it: "The people don't want to go back to the rural areas because they are afraid and also they know the hardships they will face. In summer, it would be easier for people -- even those who have lost the skills -- to live off the land from berries and wild mushrooms -- but it's the height of winter now and there is nothing."
But controlling this population becomes easier all the time, as millions have fled over the past few years, over 3,000 people die every week of AIDS, and most college graduates, many of whom are activists, leave the country. The result has been an astonishing decline in the population, which is down to around 10 million from over 13 million a few years back. Not that the government minds. In August 2002, Didymus Mutasa, today the head of the secret police, said: "We would be better off with only six million people, with our own people who support the liberation struggle."