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Africa

Another violent election in Zimbabwe?

There are already reports of political violence in rural towns, weeks before a constitutional referendum.
Last modified: 26 Feb 2013 23:26

News from Zimbabwe's rural areas always takes a while to reach the capital Harare, and when it does reach people in the cities, finding the exact location, what happened, why and when is a logistical nightmare.

We have a vague idea of where a 12-year-old boy was burnt alive, and we know his father is an Movement for Democratic Change official - prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai's party.

But mobile phone coverage in rural areas is patchy at the best of times. When we start our two-hour journey to find the bereaved family, we can't get hold of the man who is meant to meet us at a local store along the highway.

We are always a bit nervous doing such stories; you never know if people on the ground want to help you tell the story or not. Last time I went looking for a burnt village in Centenary the team got arrested and the cameraman assaulted. But it is a risk we have to take. Reporting from Harare without actually being on the ground means the information we receive cannot be verified.

You can feel things are getting tense here. A referendum for a new constitution is weeks away and a general election is expected in July.

We get more nervous when we follow the man who met us at the store. He turns into a dirt road and we drive for nearly an hour. It feels like we are in the middle of nowhere - just trees, a few boys herding cattle and this incredibly bad road.

I understand why it's hard to get information out quickly from here. The police took 24 hours to arrive at the scene - they had no vehicles to get here. There is no mobile phone coverage.

It's also easy for someone to attack a villager at night and seemingly get away with it.

Relieved we'd arrived at the house alive, we check to see if it's safe to start filming. After nearly ten years of this we have mastered the art of picking out the mourners from the undercover cops and spies from the different political parties.

The two vehicles without license plates are a blatant giveway. The woman standing in the corner taking a picture of the burnt house, but making sure we are in her frame, is another clue. Our arrival has been noticed.

Armed with our press cards from the Media Information Commission - this year they are blue in colour - we show them to the first person we suspect is a plainclothed policeman. He seems surprised to see us. While he tries to contact his superiors using his radio, we start asking questions. We have given ourselves 15 minutes to get what we need, then we leave the area.

Two things could happen if we stay too long and become conspicuous - our camera equipment and tapes will be taken away, or we will be arrested for breaking some law.

Here is what the boy's parents say happened at midnight: They heard the dogs barking, then a loud explosion. His mother claims a petrol bomb was thrown into the hut where five of her children were sleeping. Four escaped, one was burnt alive, 12-year-old Christpower Maisiri.

His father Sheperd Maisiri is an MDC official who wants to run against a member of President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, for a seat in parliament. He believes the attackers were looking for him.

ZANU-PF officials in the area won't talk to us on camera, but they deny any involvement in the violence.

In about 20 minutes we have what we need and leave. Some men climb into the 4x4 white pickup without license plates and start their car.

We admit we are a little paranoid, but better safe than sorry - so we make sure we drive off first, and are in front of them, just in case they stop us on the way back.

It's the same story and the same scenario with every alleged incident of political violence in Zimbabwe. There are so many claims and counter-claims that it's impossible to know who is telling the truth.

All I know is the chances of seeing more violence are very high the closer the country gets to an election. Stories like this one are the exception when it comes to getting them reported on the news; most cases aren't even reported to the police or the press.

In the 2008 election, violence took place in areas you couldn't access because the roads were so bad.

Politicians from all parties are calling for peaceful elections, but just how peaceful the elections will be in Zimbabwe remains to be seen.

As journalists we know we have to start carrying a jacket, a pair of running shoes, cell phones always fully charged - and remember to eat a good meal every chamce we get. You never know when you will be detained by the police or an angry mob in the rural areas for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.