White Zimbabweans hope to reclaim land
Farm family may be allowed to return amid government crackdown on squatters
By JACQUI GODDARD
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, May 17, 2002  Print Edition, Page A13

WEST NICHOLSON, ZIMBABWE -- Cut off from the outside world and surrounded by a hostile mob, Shannon Wheeler and his family held out on their farm in southern Zimbabwe for more than three weeks. It wasn't until the antagonists started taking hostages that they finally gave up.

"The invaders cut the fence, forced open a door and started shoving my mom and dad around," Mr. Wheeler said. "Later, they came to us and said they had detained my parents and they wouldn't let them go unless we all leave together. After 24 days showing them they couldn't make us leave our farm, in the end we had no choice."

Mr. Wheeler, his wife Rachel and their children Vilanda, 16, and Eric, 13, fled Twin River Ranch last week, along with his shaken parents and the farm's foreman, Sammy Mhazvo, after squatters and so-called war veterans broke through their gates, overpowered the security guards and began looting.

The family hope to return to the farm they bought in 1986 with the full permission of President Robert Mugabe's government, amid signs of unease, even from the government itself, over the violent campaign to drive white farmers from the land.

The West Nicholson siege began last month, when the state-sponsored veterans set up barricades along the nine-kilometre track leading to the farm. Led by a war veteran known as Khatazo Magogorosi Ndou, they gave the Wheelers one day to get off the farm. The family refused.

For more than three weeks, they endured the daily sight of squatters armed with cane-cutting knives and short clubs known as knobkerries threatening them from the other side of the wire fence surrounding their homestead. The battery to their main generator was stolen, cutting off water to their cattle and orchards. Water and electricity lines to the house were also severed, leaving the family to draw water by hand and reliant on candles and lamps for light.

A deputy sheriff from nearby Bulawayo arrived on May 8 to serve the squatters with an eviction that the Wheelers obtained through Zimbabwe's courts, but her vehicle was stoned. "They were 24 very tough days," Mr. Wheeler said. "A lot of nights, we just didn't even sleep -- we were constantly looking out and wondering if danger was coming."

Most of the farm's three dozen employees were chased off early on. But Mr. Mhazvo, 54, remained with the Wheelers despite intense harassment, including death threats, from other blacks. "They have been calling me a white puppet and telling me I must go to England to live. They said: 'You eat with the white man so you are not African; you must go and never come back,' " he recalled. "But to me, the Wheelers are not whites and I am not black -- we are just all family. If we die, we die together. If we live, we live together."

Mr. Mugabe's government says its land-redistribution program is aimed at redressing the imbalances caused by white colonial rule, which ended in 1980 when Rhodesia gained independence from Britain and was renamed Zimbabwe.

But Mr. Mhazvo, who helped the Wheelers establish orchards of 15,000 citrus trees and 4,000 mango trees, said there is no wrong to right, at least in this case. The Wheeler farm is among those that should be exempt from the government's official list of 5,000 white-owned properties to be expropriated. "This land wasn't bought by Rhodesians, it was sold by the Zimbabwe government," he said. ". . . I helped clear the trees and the bushes that once stood here to plant orange trees, and now the war vets say the orange trees and everything we worked for belongs to them."

The siege ended last Friday, when neighbours called authorities to the farm after hearing the Wheelers' SOS call over the radio. But the police took several hours to arrive, then refused to act. Mr. Mhazvo alleged that one of them incited the mob to continue the looting and intimidation. "In my whole life, I have never received such ill treatment as I got from the police," he said. His wife Christina, three months pregnant, was slapped by one of the invaders as she attempted to rescue some of her belongings during the looting.

Mr. Wheeler's father Eric suffered a cut arm in the hostage-taking incident, and he and his wife Annie lost $3,000 in cash. And the Wheelers lost their farm.

The lawlessness has proved too much for many erstwhile supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF -- even, perhaps, for the government itself.

This week, Harare began evicting squatters from farms that were occupied despite not being on the government's list -- days after Finance Minister Simba Makoni took the radical step of calling on his own government to end the violence "to enable farmers to farm without disruption" amid a 31-per-cent decline in the national corn harvest.

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