BY OBEY MANAYITI
TENDESAI Muzinda* balances a bucket full of water on her head with a baby strapped on her back.
Muzinda is in a hurry to go home and prepare supper for her family before sunset so that they can head for the mountains in Mazowe’s Manzou area where the villagers now spend their nights.
After a series of violent attacks by gold panners in their homes at night, the villagers now seek refuge in the mountains and return home in the mornings.
The panners, known as MaShurugwi or Colombians, walk around carrying machetes to instill fear among the villagers.
They have left a trail of blood and destruction in their wake, forcing people to sleep outside their homes as they repeatedly come to rob, assault and threaten to kill them.
“On Monday last week the MaShurugwi came here at around 1am,” Muzinda said.
“They knocked on the door, but as you can see we live in make-shift mud houses and the light was on. “They could clearly see everyone inside because of the light.
“We remained silent for a while until one of them banged on the door with a machete.
“He threatened that if we failed to give them what they wanted they would kill us. We were terrified and my husband later gathered courage and asked them what they wanted.”
The thugs demanded US$100 and cellphones, but Muzinda only had $30 on her.
“We handed them the money and a cellphone, but they said they were not satisfied and they were going to come again the following night,” she said.
“We have been sleeping in the bush since then. “We only come during the day and we always see their footprints, which means they keep coming back. The most painful thing is that we have to sleep in the bush together with the kids.”
Several villagers told similar stories, saying they were now living in fear.
Manzou villagers have not known peace in a very long time.
Barely two years ago, former first lady Grace Mugabe used police to harass them as she tried to evict the villagers to make way for a game park.
The villagers resisted, but had to endure gross human rights abuses including destruction of property and sleeping in the open.
Even now, the new government has renewed efforts to evict them.
Some of the villagers said they believed the panners were working for powerful people that include family members of government ministers.
“The biggest problem that we are having now is the violent gold panners. Those guys from Shurugwi and other places move at night terrorising people.
“They raid tuckshops and our homesteads,” Enock Chipadze said.
“They go around taking the gold ore by force and they use the type of knife, which they call Colombian.
“There are numerous cases where those who tried to resist ended up with injuries.
“They raid many homes during the night and out of fear, people have deserted their homes.”
Chipadze said the situation was now akin to the days when they had running battles with police who were sent by Mugabe.
“During those days it was the police who were terrorising us and now we are being harassed by these violent gangs.
“They stay in mountains and they have imposed a curfew. You cannot risk walking around after 6pm.
“The sad part of it is that there are known politicians who are doing the same bad things as those violent gangs.”
Chipadze said police had not done anything to protect the villagers despite reports having been made
Chidume Murwira, a tuck shop owner, said he was recently robbed of goods worth US$100 by the panners.
Centre for Natural Resource Governance director Farai Maguwu said violence by artisanal miners was now a huge problem around the country.
He said the problem started in Chiadzwa with gangs known as Magombiro.
“Certainly the problem can be traced to the 2006-2007 period and these people were called Magombiro.
“They would rob people at gunpoint or knifepoint in Marange and some of them would be disguise as police officers,” Maguwu said.
“After operation Hakudzokwe the problem subsided, but it resurfaced in Midlands and Matabeleland South in the form of a rise in warlordism where criminal gangs in the artisanal mining sector emerged.
“The sad thing is that the gangs are connected to politicians and in Midlands province those gangs can be traced to Zanu PF structures.
“They are well known and they cannot be arrested. They are above the law and they are protected by politicians.”
Mashonaland Central police spokesperson Inspector Milton Mundembe said he only heard about violence among the panners and was not aware that they were targeting villagers.
*Not real name