President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe in the 22nd African Heads of State Conference on February 21, 2003 in Paris, France.
Credit: Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images

Over time, Spicer and many Zimbabweans, black and white, learned the truth: that what is happening in Zimbabwe today is the endgame in Mugabe's 23-year drive – much of which has gone on in the shadows – toward total destruction of all political opponents. It began with what was called gukuruhundi. In English, it means "the rain that washes away the chaff." The chaff were the Ndebele tribe of Matabeleland, the provincial home of Mugabe's chief political rival of the 1980s, Dr. Joshua Nkomo.

Although Mugabe's party was in power, Nkomo's party was a strong force. It had 20 seats in parliament, and hundreds of thousands of supporters. In 1982, Mugabe, hoping to silence the voices of Nkomo's Ndebele backers, declared Nkomo a "cobra" and ordered a special, North Korean–trained unit of the Zimbabwean Army, the Fifth Brigade, to "destroy its head."

That spring, the Fifth Brigade descended on Matabeleland. Villages were burned to the ground. Zimbabwean soldiers, all majority Shona, raped Ndebele women to create "Shona babies." These rapes took place during all-night political-indoctrination sessions in which villagers were made to sing, dance, recite Marxist doctrine, and otherwise show allegiance to Mugabe. Those who failed were executed or disappeared.

Human-rights groups estimate that half of the population of Matabeleland was tortured. It's believed that up to 20,000 people were massacred in the five-year campaign. The gukuruhundi finally ended in 1987, when Nkomo agreed to sign a "unity pact" with the Mugabe government. This agreement limited Nkomo's political power, and ceded his parliamentary seats to Mugabe. The constitution was amended, ending Mugabe's reign as prime minister and establishing an "executive presidency" that gave him ultimate control of the executive, legislative, and military branches of government, with the power to declare martial law. The Fifth Brigade was disbanded, and the men dispersed throughout the Zimbabwean military.

Over time, word of the Matabeleland massacre got out (as well as reports of other irregularities: the mysterious deaths of political opponents, and increasingly violent election campaigns), but, says Spicer, many Zimbabweans refused to accept Mugabe's culpability. "We allowed ourselves to believe that he didn't know," she says. "But now I am convinced he did know and it came from him."

For most of the 1990s, the whites, and the West, let Mugabe slide. Zimbabwe was a country of farms, not of diamond mines, which are the source of half of Africa's nastiest wars. Robert Mugabe was not Mobutu Sese Seko, nor was he Idi Amin, nor any other ostentatious Big Man whose excesses drew undue attention.

"He was clever," says Spicer. "I used to get sentimental about my idealism of the 1980s, and it turns out the guy's a monster."

By 1998, Zimbabwe was a nation deep in crisis. Mugabe's economic policies were chaotic, his government was wracked with corruption scandals, and his refusal to come clean about the slaughter in Matabeleland was a political embarrassment, particularly when he was confronted with evidence of mass graves. Even though he'd promised black Zimbabweans a return of their "lost lands," Mugabe had shown little interest in land reform, and almost 20 years after the dismantling of colonialism, 70 percent of the nation's prime farm and grazing land still lay in white hands.

The change in the status quo was triggered by the decision by the men who'd fought for Zimbabwean independence (and many disenfranchised young men who hadn't) to seize the land Mugabe had long promised them. In 2000, the so-called veterans began moving onto the land and seizing farms. Startled, Mugabe proposed a referendum authorizing the nationalization of roughly half of the country's white-owned farmland and permitting an amendment of the constitution that would have expanded his already kinglike powers exponentially. The Zimbabwean people responded to this idea with a resounding no. Six months later, with heavy financial backing from the whites –politicized by the prospect of angry war vets invading their land – the newly formed MDC won 57 seats in parliament.

Stung, Mugabe retaliated, denouncing the whites as "enemies of Zimbabweans" and unleashing the vets on thousands of white farmers, who were driven from their land, often violently, while the Zimbabwean police looked on.