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Zimbabwe Family Farm Occupied

April 14, 2000

CHINHOYI, Zimbabwe (AP) _ At the ominous sound of distant drumbeats, Glynis Purkiss’ gentle smile disappears in a wave of anxiety.

For the past 10 days her white family’s farm has been occupied by black squatters demanding, at the very least, a good chunk of land for themselves. The squatters’ drumming has been a near-constant, vibrating reminder of the fight over white-owned farms simmering throughout Zimbabwe.

``We’ll certainly be pushed off rather than go. It’s worth fighting for,″ the 38-year-old former nurse said from the safety of the gated homestead inside her family’s 7,400-acre farm.

In this agriculture-dependent country of 13 million where 4,000 white farmers own one-third of the productive farmland, thousands of squatters have occupied more than 900 white-owned farms.

The High Court on Thursday backed the farmers and ordered authorities to remove the squatters. But President Robert Mugabe, who has backed the squatters, refused to follow earlier court rulings to remove them. And police did not appear to be making any moves Friday, though there were scattered reports of some squatters preparing to leave farms on their own.

Mugabe’s government has argued that police action against the squatters _ many of whom are armed with clubs, knives, spears and guns _ could trigger a civil war. Opposition politicians say Mugabe instigated the occupations as a distraction from the unemployment and inflation crippling the country as it prepares for parliamentary elections.

After the court Thursday ruling, Vice President Joseph Msika appealed for the squatters to leave. But squatters may have gotten a different signal from Mugabe.

Speaking from a summit in Cuba, Mugabe continued to sound a defiant tone despite international criticism. He again threatened to use a new constitutional amendment to seize white-owned land without compensation.

``I want to assure you that the land will be acquired, sanctions or no sanctions,″ he said in Havana on Thursday.

The takeovers continued Friday. White farmers said squatters invaded at least five more white-owned properties.

Some squatters say they are frustrated because government plans to buy some of white-owned land and redistribute it to landless blacks have foundered since Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980.

``It’s been 20 years now since independence, but there is no change,″ said Juma Madariki, a 34-year-old squatter sitting outside the gate to Purkiss’ house. ``At least I should get something to better myself.″

If history is any guide, land reform is not the key to prosperity for impoverished Zimbabweans. Many of the more than 70,000 families that have been given repossessed land in the past have had little money to buy seeds and tools and have become subsistence farmers. Others have simply abandoned the farms.

Land inequity is not even the real problem, Madariki said. It is simply a symbol highlighting Zimbabweans’ economic despair.

``We are sufferers, really we are sufferers,″ he said. ``Poverty is our motto.″

All the unrest has perplexed Purkiss and her husband, Arthur, 43. Arthur Purkiss traditionally enjoyed good relations with his black neighbors and is well-liked, even by Madariki and the other squatters.

``We’re not even politically minded,″ Glynis Purkiss said. ``We’ve just been dragged into all this.″

Arthur Purkiss’ father bought their hilly farm as uninhabited bushland in 1952. Now, with about 600 arable acres, it is mostly used to breed cattle and raise game for hunters to stalk.

When squatters began occupying farms across the country at the end of February, the Purkiss farm 100 miles west of the capital, Harare, was spared at first. Then, on April 3, a group came to his gate and demanded Purkiss sign over his land.

He refused, and the squatters took up camp just outside the gate, screaming and threatening him for two days until police forced them to move further from the house. But they periodically returned to yell at the family.

``I’ve been trying to keep it cool, but it’s difficult when they are thrashing at the gate and calling you all sorts of names,″ Arthur Purkiss said.

Worried for the safety of her 11-year-old daughter, Kelly, and 13-year-old son, Sean, Glynis Purkiss stays awake in her living room late into the night until she feels confident the squatters are sleeping.

In recent days, the squatters have begun surveying the land and putting down pegs to mark the areas they plan to farm.

The occupation has placed strains on the farm’s 40 laborers. Some sympathize with the occupiers but question their methods.

The squatters ``are our neighbors,″ said Lawrence Chimika, 36, the farm’s black foreman. ``To be on the side of Mr. Purkiss would be a problem, but to be on the side of the veterans would be a problem as well.″

The squatters have portrayed themselves as veterans of Zimbabwe’s independence war who are merely seeking economic justice. But many are far too young to have fought in the battles that ended two decades ago.

A 28-year-old squatter on the Purkiss farm who identified himself as Comrade D. Kufakutamba said he and the others were trying to be reasonable and did not want all the farmer’s land.

``If Mr. Purkiss gives us 10 acres, then that is that, and we will go and work those 10 acres and the rest will stay with him,″ said Kufakutamba, who smelled strongly of alcohol.

Moments later, he seemed less willing to compromise: ``The land belongs to the people.″

Despite the pressure, the Purkisses feel they have no choice but to stay.

``We don’t have anywhere to go, we don’t have anything else,″ Glynis Purkiss said. ``We’ve put it all in this farm.″