BY BRONWEN DACHS IN CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA
ZIMBABWEANS are in despair as the country's ruler Robert Mugabe was sworn in as president for a sixth term, a Catholic Church official has said.
In rural areas of the southern African country, the runoff election on June 27, in which President Mugabe was the only candidate, "was masterminded by thugs" loyal to the ruling party, said Alouis Chaumba, who heads the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe. President Mugabe was sworn in June 29.
"People know if they disobey they will be beaten up," Mr Chaumba said. "The level of brutality in the rural areas has reached unimaginable proportions."
While many people in Zimbabwe's cities did not turn up at the polling stations. people in rural areas "were warned that they had to go and vote", he said.
"They were not allowed into the booths on their own but were made to tell the electoral officers that they were unable to read or write and then were given folded ballots [for Mugabe] to hand in," he said.
"A blanket of fear engulfs the countryside," said Mr Chaumba, who visited numerous villages on June 29. "Where there is no rule of law, anything can happen."
In high-density hostels in Harare, the capital, people were told they would be evicted if they did not vote, he said.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who withdrew from the run-off election because of the violence, won the most votes in the first round of presidential voting in March but not enough for outright victory.
Human rights groups said opposition supporters have been the targets of brutal state-sponsored violence since March, leaving more than 80 dead and 200,000 displaced.
Zimbabwe's electoral commission repotted more than two million votes cast for Mugabe, and 233,000 for Tsvangirai, whose name was still on the ballot although he withdrew from the election on June 22.
The government reported the turnout at about 42 per cent, with about 131,000 ballots spoiled, apparently in protest. Neither candidate got credit for the spoiled ballots.
Living conditions in the country are "dire", Mr Chaumba said.
Since the first round of elections, shortages of basic goods have worsened, public services have come to a virtual standstill, and power and water outages have continued daily. Bishop Kevin Dowling of Ftustenburg, South Africa, said that he hoped governments in the African Union this week had "the courage of their convictions to speak out against Mugabe" at the summit of the 53nation bloc in Egypt. which was attended by Mr Mugabe.
Zimbabwe's Jesuits said Mugabe's campaign claim that "only God can remove me from power" was outrageous.
"In making such an outrageous claim, Mugabe, who likes to be known as 'a devout Catholic' goes completely against the teaching of the Catholic Church and the Church's positive attitude toward democracy," the Jesuits said in their late June newsletter.
It also emerged this week that several Catholic priests have been assaulted by supporters of Zimbabwe's ruling party and at least one house belonging to the Church has been burned down.
St Anthony's mission house in Zaka, in the Masvingo diocese, was home to a few priests before it was destroyed in the violence that preceded the run-off presidential election, said Jesuit Fr Oscar Wermter, who runs the order's Zimbabwean communications office in the capital of Harare.
Many priests in rural areas, as well as at least one in Harare, have been assaulted in the crackdown against the opposition to President Mugabe, Fr Wermter said.
"Very serious threats" also have been made against priests and other Church workers, he said.
Some parishioners have been "put under pressure to attend ruling party rallies instead of Mass on Sundays," Fr Wermter said, noting that "the pressure differs from place to place:" The Zimbabwean Jesuits' late June newsletter reported that the priests who have been threatened "cannot operate freely" and a few "had to be removed temporarily from their posts for their own safety-.
Some priests "cannot go to remote outstations, or outstation lay leaders tell them not to come because of the instability". the newsletter said.
An unknown number of Church members have been killed, seriously injured or forced to flee, while others have had their homes destroyed, according to the report. The Catholic development commission, which runs food programmes in the country, and other Church groups "are trying to give assistance to displaced persons, regardless of whether they are members of the Church or not", the newsletter said.
Mary Kenny: Page 10