Morgan Tsvangirai collapsed three times during police beatings, but officers simply continued the torture after reviving him with buckets of cold water. Total injuries in the end: a broken hand and wrist; a deep head gash; plentiful heavy bruises and a right eye swollen almost shut. Zimbabwe's charismatic and foremost opposition leader looked so battered March 13, two days later, photographs of him outside a Harare court shocked the world.
"I've never seen such sadism and such brutality," Tsvangirai told colleague Kerry Kay, who is his party's deputy health minister. That's a telling comment from a man who once matter-of-factly explained to WORLD that ruling party thugs almost threw him from a tenth floor office window ("Breadbasket to Basketcase," Feb. 19, 2005).
Doctors let Tsvangirai return home Friday morning after four days in hospital, assured he had no skull fracture. After seeing him in intensive care, Kay said "there was definitely an attempt at assassination, no doubt about it."
The sudden March 11 crackdown on Tsvangirai and about 50 other leaders of his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is telling. Like the gash in Tsvangirai's head, Zimbabwean politics has split open in the last year or so. Rival factions in President Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party are now vying against him for power, even as the aging dictator's political tactics have caused the opposition MDC to divide in two. This latest brutality drew worldwide, and more importantly, African condemnation. It signals that the regime is growing desperate.
The violence began Sunday, when MDC leaders and members gathered in Harare's Highfield township as part of a new "Save Zimbabwe" movement: a coalition of churches, political parties and civic groups. The rally and prayer meeting never got started, though: police camped out the night before, fired water cannon and tear gas on attendees, and shot dead one man before dragging leaders to Harare's central police station.
Tsvangirai was not originally among them, but drove to the station to ask about his colleagues. Police officers grabbed him and beat him with iron bars and batons, and kicked him in the stomach with booted feet, Kay said. Other leaders also suffered broken bones and mass bruises, though some said in press reports none were as bad as the injuries suffered by Tsvangirai.
Many of the beaten had to wait a day or more for medical treatment, but authorities ordered them to appear in court Tuesday before releasing them without charges. Kay described one victim she saw"lying flat out on the floor of the court, in agony." When Kay felt the man's pulse, "it was clear that while the Prosecutor was refusing medical attention to all those brutalized, this man was going to die."
Mugabe blamed the opposition for causing the unrest, and said when Western countries "criticize the government when it tries to prevent violence and punish perpetrators of that violence, we take the position that they can go hang."
Defiant words for a 27-year autocrat, but on camera, Mugabe looked quiet and subdued. His ill-fated grab of white commercial farmers' land seven years ago has plunged a once-prosperous African economy into ruin, with inflation hovering around 1,700 percent. Most Zimbabweans are starving and jobless, and some 700,000 lost their ramshackle homes in a 2005 demolition ordered by Mugabe's regime.
Now ruling party leaders are finding that the gutted economy and Western sanctions against them are ruining their businesses. Two factions are working against Mugabe and his loyalists, including his hand-picked vice president Joyce Majuru. And more worrying for him is a potential military coup. According to the International Crisis Group, there are a growing number of disgruntled, underpaid police and security force members.
Mugabe's latest attempt to intimidate the MDC has only provoked sympathy for Tsvangirai-even across faction lines within the opposition. Two-year-old rifts that split the MDC came partly because regime agents had infiltrated the party, says MDC lawmaker David Coltart. "Morgan was never involved in it, but the criticism was he just didn't deal with it," said Coltart, who represents a district of Bulawayo, the country's second-largest city. During his years as opposition leader, critics have sometimes accused Tsvangirai of acting indecisively. Coltart eventually joined the party's splinter faction.
Now, as Tsvangirai heals, so may his weakened movement. Mugabe, meanwhile, may find himself under threat, and that it is his own rule that has taken the real beating.