Zimbabwe activists forced to fleenation as Mugabe tightens reins

They had struggled for so long to bring Zimbabwe to this point: a vibrant, generally free election in which President Robert Mugabe suffered his first defeat in 28 years in power.

That was in March. But Zimbabwe's pro-democracy activists didn't bank on Mugabe's response: deploying government militias to kill and terrorize opponents before last month's second-round vote, forcing his election rival to withdraw and prolonging his grip on a suffering country.

Defeated and demoralized, with scores of their ranks dead or missing, Zimbabwe's legions of activists have gone into hiding at home and abroad. As Mugabe consolidates his power, many of the activists who have fled to neighboring South Africa say they don't know when it will be safe to return.

“Everyone is underground. The democracy movement is totally on hold,” said Ishmael Kauzani, 33, a longtime activist who was kidnapped and beaten nearly to death by government militias in April. He now lives in a safe house in Sunnyside, a suburb of South Africa's capital, Pretoria, with three other activists in exile.

Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai agreed Monday to begin talks on resolving the political crisis. But experts think that the 84-year-old president, who vowed during the election that “only God” could force him from office, is unlikely to cede any real power.

Mugabe's crackdown has targeted college students, grass-roots organizers and community-based members of Tsvangirai's party, the Movement for Democratic Change, who have close ties with voters, analysts and activists say. It suggests a concerted effort to cut down the youngest and most dedicated foot soldiers of a diverse coalition of pro-democracy groups that have agitated for more than a decade for an end to the Mugabe era.

The crackdown's swiftness and lethality have even hardened campaigners wondering how the movement will reconstitute itself.

Opposition party officials say that more than 100 members have been killed and at least 1,000 imprisoned. Other civic groups say that tally doesn't include many of their members who have been murdered or tortured.

“As a strategy to destroy us, it was good,” said Wiseman Mayengeza, 26, who left his wife and young daughter behind when he fled a government raid on an opposition safe house in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, in April.