Zimbabwe’s farmers look back at ‘hell’ under Mugabe

Zimbabwean commercial farmer Tommy Bayley rides an old bicycle ahead of war veterans and villagers, who invaded his farm at Danbury Park outside the capital Harare, in this file picture taken April 8, 2000. REUTERS/Howard Burditt/Files
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At its zenith, the Mount Carmel farm in northern Zimbabwe boasted 500 livestock and shipped its mangoes and lemons to Europe, a continent away.

In 2009, that halcyon time ended abruptly when the farm was seized by thugs operating in the name of Robert Mugabe’s land reform.

Ten years later, Mount Carmel has just 15 cows and an overgrown orchard.

“This wonderful land is untapped,” said its former owner, Ben Freeth.

He is among the thousands of white farmers violently evicted by Mugabe’s land reform policy, which almost at a stroke turned Zimbabwe from a bread basket into a basket case.

Zimbabwe’s founding president died during a medical trip to Singapore last week, aged 95.

He was toppled by his former military allies in 2017, ending a 37-year rule marked by political repression and economic mismanagement, and leaving a nation torn over his legacy.

“Before we had an orchard, now it’s a forest,” said Sinos Mlauzi, a black Zimbabwean who used to work for Freeth.

“When I heard Mugabe died, I was overjoyed,” he said, lifting his cap to show scars left from 2009. “He took away our means of subsistence.”

Mount Carmal’s 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) lie in the bush, near the northern town of Chegutu.

Two dismembered tractors lie in a shed, while a pickup truck outside is riddled with bullet holes.

Brick ruins and an empty swimming pool are all that remains of the Freeths’ luxurious farmhouse, which was torched.

Freeth, 50, recalls the six months of “hell” he and his family suffered as mobs repeatedly attacked his property.

“(Mugabe’s followers) kicked down the front door and dragged blazing tires inside,” said Freeth, sitting in the lush gardens of the house he now occupies in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare.

“They were banging on oil drums outside the house. They were threatening my children.”

Agricultural disaster

Freeth’s employees were beaten with steel rods and his parents-in-law were seriously injured.

The violence culminated on August 30, 2009, when the Freeths returned from church to find their house was in flames.

Mugabe’s land reform was launched in 2000 to re-distribute land awarded to whites during British colonial rule, which ended with Mugabe’s election in 1980.