The image went round the world: the body of Terry Ford, a white farmer killed by Zimbabwe’s notorious “war veterans”, being guarded by his Jack Russell terrier. For many the sight symbolised the country’s descent into tyranny under Robert Mugabe.

That was a year ago. Now Gowrie, the 840-hectare farm at Norton, 25 miles west of Harare, is a scene of desolation – fields mostly lying fallow or overgrown with weeds, the farmhouse an empty shell, stripped of anything that can be sold for money or food. Only 16 people remain where 45 were once employed, growing maize, tobacco and soya as well as keeping cattle and sheep.

When I visited Gowrie, posing as an aid worker, Mike Silas Bressing, a “war veteran” acting as spokesman, told me: “We are hungry. We have mealie [maize] meal for 10 days, then nothing. We have no sugar or cooking oil. We have planted 20 hectares of maize and eight hectares of potatoes and broccoli, but the harvest is not till the end of May or June.”

What has happened at Gowrie is being repeated all over Zimbabwe. White commercial farmers and their black workers are driven off, to be replaced by people with few agricultural skills. The result is starvation: even according to government figures, two-thirds of the 12 million population faces famine.

But when the “veterans” killed Terry Ford and seized his farmstead – the chief murder suspect, a man known as Mwamba, moved into his bedroom, but was not around the day I appeared – they did not realise that they too were being manipulated. In many cases the people who take over prime farms are used as shock troops by President Mugabe’s circle, who end up owning the land.

Mike Silas Bressing and the others struggling to exist at Gowrie could never have foreseen how quickly they would be abandoned by their powerful backers. Huddled round a fire, shivering and hungry, they complained about the absence of funds to help them cultivate the land, and, now that they are hungry, the lack of government food aid.

Despite their plight, they are having to prepare for a “field day”, a government scheme designed to show off the “new farmers” in action – the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation swamps the airwaves with propaganda about the great strides being made in the rural areas “now the land is ours”. The “veterans” have very little to show for their work, however, and had to visit a nearby white commercial farmer, one of two left in the area, to ask if they could borrow a tractor for the day.

Mark Ford, Terry’s son, has moved in with his girlfriend. Since his father’s death he has sought to find out who was responsible, and who now owns Gowrie. No one has been convicted of the murder, but everyone, including the police, knows who the killers are, Mark says.

As for the question of ownership, “it seemed impossible … there’s no paperwork. What we have is a pyramid system, the war vets at the bottom, then the head war vets, then Zanu PF party officials. The question is: who is at the top?”

Now Mark thinks he has the answer. Local farmers have uncovered evidence that Sabina Mugabe, the President’s older sister and the area’s governor, has earmarked Norton’s farms, among the most valuable in the country, for her family. Already around a dozen farms bordering Lake Darwendale, including Terry Ford’s, have been occupied. Local officials say they have been reserved for “the royal family” – which in Zimbabwe today means only one thing.

Farmers believe that once the fuss dies down the war vets who were encouraged to occupy the farms will be moved off, and Mugabe family members and prominent government supporters will take over and begin farming them seriously. Leo Mugabe, the President’s nephew, is known to own the 500-hectare Diandra Farm, while Sabina is thought to have claimed the 1,000-hectare Audley End Farm for herself.

Mark Ford still hopes that one day he will be able to reclaim Gowrie farm, which had been in his family for six generations. Despite the brutality of his father’s murder, he says he could one day forgive the killers. “The war vets are more frightened than we are,” he said. “They’re uneducated people doing what they’re told. But the people who actually run the war veterans and ordered them to attack, the people at the top of the hierarchy – I’ll never forgive them.”

This piece appeared in the Independent on Sunday on March 23 2003

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