Sitting behind Mugabe at the ceremony, as Chinese-built fighter jets screamed overhead, six men glowered and followed their dictator’s every move.
Thickset and bursting out of their heavily decorated military uniforms, the watching men were The GeneralsÂ -Â a group of cold-blooded killers who have seized power in Zimbabwe and revel in nicknames such as The Butcher and The Son Of God.
Dubbed the Dirty Half-Dozen or The Gang Of Six by Zimbabwe’s traumatised people, The Generals have formed a military junta with terrifying plans to ‘eliminate all opponents’. They forced Mugabe to hand over power to them at a meeting in State House, his HQ in Harare, the capital, days after he lost the first round of elections on March 29.
In a chilling turn of events, they arrived in a fleet of black Mercedes on April 5 and issued the President with an ultimatum: withhold the election results, stand aside and let them do their work to ensure they never again face a challenge to their lucrative, blood-thirsty rule.
Faced with exile and disgrace after this unthinkable defeat, not to mention the threat of being tried by the UN for war crimes, diplomats say Mugabe could see no way out.
He could agree to the deal in return for staying on as a figurehead presidentÂ -Â or face the wrath of men responsible for some of Zimbabwe’s bloodiest massacres, where pregnant women have been cut open and their unborn babies thrown down wells.
According to palace insiders, even Grace, Mugabe’s wife, has turned against her husband. She was working as a security guard at State House when the President first spotted her and she officially became Zimbabwe’s First Lady after Mugabe’s first wife died. Grace relished the role, commandeering the country’s aircraft for shopping sprees in Paris, London and Milan.
The men behind Mugabe: Commissioner of the Zimbabwe Republic Police Augustine Chihuri, left, and Paradzai Zimondi, head of the country’s Prison Service
Now, however, she is furious at the prospect of losing the perks of office, which include five mansions and the delivery of boxes stuffed with millions of U.S. dollars to her home each month. She told Mugabe, 40 years her senior, to accept the deal offered by The Generals. Reluctantly, he agreed.
Mugabe ceded power to men schooled in torture and political assassinations at the infamous Chinese military academy in Nanking. At meetings held under their juntaÂ -Â called the Joint Operational Command (JOC), which controls the secret services, army, air force, police and prisonsÂ -Â The Generals decreed ‘they will never give up power’.
To keep their promise, they have created a highly sophisticated state terror apparatus to quell future dissent. They are led by Emmerson Mnangagwa, a founding member of the notorious Crocodile Gang, who tortured and murdered white farmers during Mugabe’s guerilla war against white rule in the late Seventies.
But Mnangagwa’s cruelty was not confined to attacks on whites. He was also notorious for his role as director of intelligence during Operation Gukurahundi (‘the rain that washes away the chaff’), a genocidal campaign against a breakaway guerilla faction led by Joshua Nkomo during the war of independence.
After being jailed during the days of white rule for his part in atrocities, he rose through the ranks of the ruling ZANU-PF party following independence in 1980. With an elaborate network of informers, Mnangagwa was responsible for directing the paramilitary Fifth Brigade against black enemy targets, particularly the supporters of Nkomo in Matabeleland in the south-west of the country.
Trained by North Korea and armed with the latest weapons, the Fifth Brigade has been blamed for the deaths of up to 20,000 people during the Matabeleland Massacres between 1982 and 1986. Many were killed at public executions. After being told to dig their own graves, with family and friends forced to look on, the victims were shot. Others were burned alive in their huts. Women and babies were thrown into boreholes used for water.
Along with Grace Mugabe and others in The Gang Of Six, MnangagwaÂ -Â who calls himself The Son Of God and claims to be accountable to no oneÂ -Â made millions by ordering troops into the Democratic Republic of Congo during the late Nineties.
In a war that claimed more than three million lives, the soldiers battled for control of the Congo’s diamond minesÂ -Â and Zimbabwe’s state airline was used as part of an elaborate gem-smuggling operation that made an estimated Â£5 billion for those involved.
All this has made MnangagwaÂ -Â who has replaced Mugabe as chief of the Joint Operational CommandÂ -Â the wealthiest man in Zimbabwe. He has a magnificent walled palace in Harare with a helicopter pad, and a sprawling ranch.
His chief partner in crime is General Constantine Chiwenga, the head of Zimbabwe’s defence forces, who lives in a sparkling white villa with swimming pools and servants’ quarters, in splendid isolation on a hill overlooking the squalor of Harare.
Brusque and with a volcanic temper, Chiwenga led the Fifth Brigade during the genocide against Nkomo’s Ndebele tribe. Known as The Butcher Of Matabeleland, he is reputed to have thrown suspected Nkomo supporters out of helicopters.
The behaviour of Chiwenga’s wife, Jocelyn, a former prostitute, has not done much for his recent mood. She shops with an entourage of soldiers to push the poor out of the wayÂ -Â and once shouted at Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition, that she would ‘take his manhood’ when she spotted him in the street. She has also seized two farms from white owners, saying she would ‘taste their blood’ if they refused to hand over the land.
Along with Augustine Chihuri (head of the police), Paradzai Zimondi (head of prisons), Perence Shiri ( airforce) and Gideon Gono (in charge of funding), these are the men who intelligence sources in Harare say are in control of the country and ‘running a regime within a regime.’
And they are as determined as any dictator that they will not give up power. As well as being wanted for war crimes, they suffer none of the hardships faced by millions of Zimbabweans every day. While many are reduced to killing wild animals and living off berries, The Generals live in Borrowdale Brook, an exclusive development in the north of the city.
Opposition MDC members and victims of political violence seek refuge at the American Embassy in Harare
At their own exclusive supermarket, stocked with goods smuggled in by road and air, the families and relatives of The Generals browse through a selection of fresh seafood, including lobster and tiger prawns, as well as the finest French wines and cheeses.
At a clandestine meeting with one dissident Zanu-PF source, down a dirt track surrounded by elephant grass that had grown to head height, I was shown documents purporting to outline the junta’s ‘final solution’ against enemies of their regime.
In a strategy with chilling echoes of the Matabeleland Massacres, the documents reveal that the killing has only just startedÂ -Â and provide conclusive proof that ballot boxes were stuffed all over the country, ‘watched by death squads with orders to kill opposition MPs’.
Of course, we cannot be sure that they are genuine, but they also apparently reveal that if Tsvangirai’s MDC had not pulled out over fears of a bloodbath, the election ‘results’ would not have been released and he would have been charged with treason and hanged.
They state that the killing must continue even after Mugabe has cheated his way to power, ‘with terror to be unleashed after the elections . . . [With] voting patterns to be assessed to determine where terror should be unleashed’.
As Tsvangirai remains in hiding at the Dutch Embassy after threats on his life, his supporters are on the run in the face of a brutal new crackdown. With foreign journalists banned and radio broadcasts from neighbouring countries blocked, the strategy is designed to ensure the scale of the onslaught does not reach the outside world.
Doctors at hospitals I visited reported a harrowing new medical phenomenon: the kidneys of victims ‘exploding’. ‘The blood cells burst during prolonged beatings, clogging the kidneys, which can’t cope,’ one doctor said, to the background noise of screaming from victims in the wards.
‘The kidneys collapse and the patients die. It’s horrible. It’s ugly and it’s getting worse. The Generals have killed and killed and killed. It is crude torture with horrific consequences. It’s like there is a warÂ -Â with only one side fighting it.’ Lovemore Zilika, 47, was asleep at home when a gang high on drink and drugs started throwing rocks through his windows.
They pounced when he went to investigate, beating him using crude clubs with nails sticking out. Lifting his dressings to show masses of red, shredded flesh, Lovemore also had both legs broken in 20 places. His legs are in plaster up to his groin and they may have to be amputated.
‘These people are killers,’ he said. ‘They only left me because they thought I was dead. As they beat me, they kept asking why I wanted to support the MDC. These people are not human.’
One woman said she was beaten and taken to a hut in the bush, where she was repeatedly raped. ‘There were ten,’ she said, weeping.
Another victim, a 42-year- old man who gave his name only as Gudzai, told how he was dragged from his home at night. As his arms and legs were broken with iron bars and rocks, he kept slipping into unconsciousness. ‘They would throw water over me to make me come round,’ he said. ‘Then they started beating me again.’
This has prompted warnings that the people will rise upÂ -Â and wreak awful revenge on their rulers, with the country sliding into civil war. Yet even the most committed MDC activists were last week in hiding fearing the ‘final solution.’
After being called late at night this week, I was taken to a safe houseÂ -Â one of dozens used to hide ‘enemies of the regime’ before they can be smuggled out of the country. After a raft of elaborate security precautions, I was introduced to three MDC officials whose names are on death lists distributed by the junta.
Kimberley, 26, was held at four torture camps last week. He was forced to simulate sex with a hole in the ground and beaten with logs. He was put in a cell with two rotting bodies for 24 hours and was denounced by fellow opposition supporters, who had been beaten for hours into submission.
‘They kept shouting at me that I was a sell-out,’ he told me, grinning despite his injuries. ‘They burned my home and those of my relatives. They blindfolded and tortured me. I was eventually dumped in the bush. They thought I was dead. I couldn’t walk, but villagers helped me.’
The interview was interrupted. A car had been heard. Kimberley told me to go before ‘they’ came.
Asked if he had a message for the West, he said: ‘The world needs to mobilise to get rid of these people. I have a baby daughter and I want her to grow up without fear. That’s all any of us want.’
But The Gang Of Six has too much to lose. As one Western diplomat told me before I slipped out of Zimbabwe: ‘These men will not give up power. They are in too deep. They have too much blood on their hands. They have shown they will stop at nothing to keep what they have got.’
Pity the brave people of Zimbabwe. For I suspect that even the removal of Robert Mugabe will not be enough to save them.
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