HARARE, Zimbabwe — President Robert Mugabe summoned his top security officials to a government training center near his rural home in central Zimbabwe on the afternoon of March 30. In a voice barely audible at first, he informed the leaders of the state security apparatus that had enforced his rule for 28 years that he had lost the presidential vote held the previous day.
Then Mugabe told the gathering he planned to give up power in a televised speech to the nation the next day, according to the written notes of one participant that were corroborated by two other people with direct knowledge of the meeting.
But Zimbabwe's military chief, Gen. Constantine Chiwenga, responded that the choice was not Mugabe's alone to make. According to two firsthand accounts of the meeting, Chiwenga told Mugabe his military would take control of the country to keep him in office or the president could contest a runoff election, directed in the field by senior army officers supervising a military-style campaign against the opposition.
Mugabe, the only leader this country has known since its break from white rule nearly three decades ago, agreed to remain in the race and rely on the army to ensure his victory. During an April 8 military planning meeting, according to written notes and the accounts of participants, the plan was given a code name: CIBD. The acronym, which proved apt in the fevered campaign that unfolded over the following weeks, stood for: Coercion. Intimidation. Beating. Displacement.
In the three months between the March 29 vote and the June 27 runoff election, ruling-party militias under the guidance of 200 senior army officers battered the Movement for Democratic Change, bringing the opposition party's network of activists to the verge of oblivion. By election day, more than 80 opposition supporters were dead, hundreds were missing, thousands were injured and hundreds of thousands were homeless. Morgan Tsvangirai, the party's leader, dropped out of the contest and took refuge in the Dutch Embassy.
The Washington Post was given access to the written record by a participant of several private meetings attended by Mugabe between the first round of voting and the runoff. The notes were corroborated by witnesses. Many of the people interviewed, including members of Mugabe's inner circle, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of government retribution. Much of the reporting was conducted by a Zimbabwean reporter for the Post whose name is being withheld for security reasons. What emerges from these accounts is a ruling inner circle that debated only in passing the consequences of the political violence on the country and on international opinion.
Mugabe's party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, took power in 1980 after a protracted guerrilla war. The notes and interviews make clear that its military supporters, who stood to lose wealth and influence if Mugabe bowed out, were not prepared to relinquish their authority simply because voters checked Tsvangirai's name on the ballots.
"The small piece of paper cannot take the country," Solomon Mujuru, the former guerrilla commander who once headed Zimbabwe's military, told the party's ruling politburo on April 4.
Marks of torture
The plan's first phase unfolded the week after the high-level meeting, as Mugabe supporters began erecting 2,000 party compounds across the country that would serve as bases for the party militias.
At first, the beatings with whips, striking with sticks, torture and other forms of intimidation appeared consistent with the country's past political violence. Little of it was fatal.
That changed May 5 in the remote farming village of Chaona, 65 miles north of the capital, Harare. The village of dirt streets had voted for Tsvangirai in the election's first round after decades of supporting Mugabe.
On the evening of May 5 — three days after Mugabe's government finally released the official results of the March 29 election — 200 Mugabe supporters rampaged through its streets. By the time the militia finished, seven people were dead and the injured bore the hallmarks of a new kind of political violence.
Women were stripped and beaten so viciously that whole sections of flesh fell away from their buttocks. Many had to lie face down in hospital beds during weeks of recovery. Men's genitals became targets. The official postmortem report on Chaona opposition activist Aleck Chiriseri listed crushed genitals among the causes of death. Other men died the same way.
At the funerals for Chiriseri and the others, opposition activists noted the gruesome condition of the corpses. Some in the crowds believed soldiers trained in torture were behind the killings. "This is what alerted me that now we are dealing with professional killers," said Shepherd Mushonga, a top opposition leader for the province that includes Chaona.
The death toll mounted through May, and almost all of the fatalities were opposition activists. Tsvangirai's personal advance man, Tonderai Ndira, 32, was abducted and killed. Police in riot gear raided opposition headquarters in Harare, arresting hundreds of families that had taken refuge.
First-round results, delayed for five weeks, showed Tsvangirai winning but not with the majority needed to avoid a second round. The opposition, however, had won a parliamentary majority.
As Mugabe's militias intensified their attacks, Tsvangirai dropped out of the race.
On election day, Mugabe's militias drove voters to the polls and tracked through ballot serial numbers those who refused to vote or who cast ballots for Tsvangirai despite his boycott.
The 84-year-old Mugabe took the oath of office two days later. He waved a Bible in the air and exchanged congratulatory handshakes with Chiwenga and other military leaders.
About the same time, a 29-year-old survivor of the first assault in Chaona, Patrick Mapondera, emerged from the hospital. His wife, who had also been badly beaten, was recovering from skin grafts. She could sit again. If and when the couple returns home, he said, he does not expect to take up his job again. "They've destroyed everything," he said.