HARARE, Zimbabwe — Opposition leader and presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai returned to his homeland last Saturday, stopping first to visit hospitalized supporters who had been targeted in an onslaught of state-sponsored violence.
He then called on increasingly autocratic President Robert Mugabe to “set his people free from poverty, hunger and fear” by stepping down.
Tsvangirai, who had left Zimbabwe six weeks earlier, tried to return the week before, but called that off after his party said he was the target of a military assassination plot. The former union leader has survived at least three assassination attempts.
He arrived at the capital’s main airport on May 24 with little fanfare, and then sped off in a three-car convoy to a Harare hospital were victims of political violence were being treated.
“I return home to Zimbabwe with a sad heart,” he told reporters after the hospital visit. “I have met and listened to the stories of the innocent people targeted by a regime seemingly desperate to cling to power.”
Tsvangirai faces a presidential runoff against Mugabe on June 27. Independent human rights groups say opposition supporters have been beaten and killed by government and ruling party thugs to ensure the 84-year-old Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, wins the second round. He trailed Tsvangirai in the first round on March 29.
“Mugabe once led our people to freedom,” Tsvangirai told reporters in Harare. “He can even now set his people free from poverty, hunger and fear” by stepping down.
The violence poses serious questions about whether the runoff can be free and fair. But Tsvangirai said he did not expect it to keep his supporters from the polls.
“If Mugabe thinks he has beaten people into submission, he will have a rude shock on the 27th,” he said.
Tsvangirai, 56, told The Associated Press on the way to the airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, that he felt safe returning.
He had said farewell to his family with a quick “OK. Cheers,” on the front porch of his northern Johannesburg home. One of his twin daughters took pictures with her cell phone. Tsvangirai said it was not clear when his wife and six children would join him in Zimbabwe.
Among the assassination attempts Tsvangirai has survived was one in 1997 by unidentified assailants who tried to throw him from a 10th floor window. Last year, he was hospitalized after a brutal assault by police at a prayer rally, and images seen around the world of his bruised and swollen face have come to symbolize the plight of dissenters in Zimbabwe.(p2)