BANKET, Zimbabwe — This is the season for winter wheat, the time when lush, green seedlings usually blanket the earth. But these days, the roaring tractors have been silenced and many fertile farms are idle.
Here in this hungry land, where the United Nations says six million people — half the population — are threatened by famine, the government of President Robert Mugabe has ordered thousands of the country's most productive farmers to stop farming.
The white commercial farmers, who are among the largest producers of wheat and cornmeal, help feed the nation and fuel the economy. But they have been condemned as racists and enemies of the state because they have refused to turn over their land to the government — land that was seized from blacks during the days of British colonial rule.
And now, officials say, the day of reckoning is finally at hand.
By Aug. 8, the government has announced, most of the nation's white farmers must leave their farms for good. As the deadline approaches, many farmers are packing their bags.
The threatened expulsion of 2,900 white farmers has shaken a country already reeling from drought, a collapsing economy and the political violence condoned by an increasingly authoritarian government. Some say officials are punishing the farmers for financing the opposition in the presidential election last March, an election that most Western officials believe was rigged to ensure Mr. Mugabe's victory.
Others say that Mr. Mugabe, 78, who came to power in the 1980 election that ended white rule, is desperate to secure a place in African history as the revolutionary who returned the land to his impoverished people.
Officials of the World Bank and Western governments agree land should be redistributed in Zimbabwe, where the legacy of colonialism has left a tiny white minority with more than half the fertile soil. Whites make up only 1 percent of the population. But farmers and foreign donors have balked at participating in this program, which has been dogged by violence and cronyism ever since it was revived two years ago in what is widely viewed as a tactic to bolster Mr. Mugabe's waning popularity.
Prominent politicians loyal to Mr. Mugabe now control scores of fertile farms while many poor blacks are stranded on arid stretches without adequate water or sanitation. The government, which claims to have acquired more than 5,000 properties, actually has title deeds to fewer than 100, recent statistics show.
As government-backed militants have swept across the country, invading the farms in the past few years, several white farmers and dozens of black farm workers have been killed while thousands of other black laborers have been evicted and left homeless.
The government has refused to pay white farmers for their properties, saying it will not pay for land stolen by British settlers. Britain has agreed to finance a well-run land redistribution program, but not the one that is currently in place. So farmers who are forced off their properties receive nothing right now for the land they have lost.
The United States and the European Union, which have already imposed sanctions on top officials, have criticized Zimbabwe's treatment of its farmers, and diplomats here are quietly pressuring officials to reconsider their stance. It is still unclear how the government will actually deal with whites who defy the deadline. Some officials have threatened to crack down, while others have promised to be lenient with farmers who agree to give up some of their land.
But recently officials arrested 16 white farmers for continuing to farm past June 24 — the date when most farmers were ordered to stop working — leaving little doubt that some hard-liners are willing to force citizens to endure even greater hardships as they struggle to redraw the colonial map.
Meanwhile, the exodus of whites from Zimbabwe's farms is quickening. In July, Adrian Wilkinson was loading his belongings into his Isuzu pickup truck, trying to beat the government deadline.
In normal years, he grows about 740 acres of winter wheat. This year, he will produce no wheat at all. Militants threatened him when he tried to plant. A few weeks ago, they barricaded him and his wife inside their farmhouse, pounding on the doors and singing for blood.
So the Wilkinsons have decided to give up their 3,000-acre farm, where they grew tobacco, soybeans and corn, and the red brick farmhouse where they raised their children and savored the best years of their lives.
"On Monday, I took out my stove and my dishwasher," said Mr. Wilkinson, 50, who plans to live off his savings in a smaller house in town, where whites feel more secure. "Today, I'm going to take out this washing machine and the tumble dryer."
He staggered under the weight of the washing machine and then wandered wistfully through his emptying house, choosing what would stay and what would go.
He chose the two white highchairs, where his grandchildren used to squirm and wiggle, and his wife's satiny red slippers. A swivel chair. Two toasters. Ten blue-tinted wine glasses and a matching pitcher.
Mr. Wilkinson did not weep when he locked the door and turned his back on his red roses and tiger lilies. But under the surface, desperation simmers.
He swallows what he calls "happy pills" to get through the day without drowning in rage or sorrow. At night, he takes sleeping pills. He has consulted a counselor to cope with the anger that boils up inside, particularly when he thinks about the government's refusal to pay him for his property. He had dreamed of retiring, but not like this.
"Am I angry?" he asked. He clenched his steering wheel as he drove past the palm trees, the metal gate and his empty fields. He has lived at this farm all his life.
"I'm not against black advancement, but this is my life; it's my home," he said finally. "I'm losing everything." Over the past two years, as the farm invasions spread, about 15 percent of the country's white farmers have left their properties, according to the Commercial Farmers Union, which represents about 3,500 white farmers.
By May, about 30 percent of commercial farms had stopped producing altogether because of threats from government-backed militants, the union said. The combination of land seizures and this year's severe drought has been disastrous.
In 1999, agriculture accounted for 20 percent of Zimbabwe's domestic product, the World Bank says. A year later, the figure had dropped to 11 percent, and experts say it has continued to decline.
The production of corn — the country's staple food — plunged by nearly 70 percent this year, the United Nations says. It predicts that the production of winter wheat, which is harvested in October, will be down by as much as 40 percent.
With the situation so dire, white farmers are increasingly questioning whether they have a future in Zimbabwe. At the Banket country club, where dozens of farmers met recently to consider their options, union leaders pleaded with members to stay put.
"We've been harassed and terrorized for political gain, but we are still all Zimbabweans here," said Ian Barrett, who represents the farmers who produce cooking oil. "We're still here! We're still strong!"
But everyone agrees that holding on is difficult.
In the town of Chiredzi, where 15 farmers were arrested for continuing to farm, most of the men have vowed to defy the deadline. They are hiring extra guards and bracing themselves for the worst.
Officials have warned that farmers who defy the deadline will be arrested, tried and sentenced to two years in jail or a $363 fine.
Alain Faydherbe, 37, has decided that no matter what happens on Aug. 8, he will move to Mozambique, where officials are inviting white farmers to work that country's undeveloped land. Militants, known as war veterans because many fought against white rule, have invaded his farm and beaten his workers.
"I've got three little kids," Mr. Faydherbe said. "Every time they hear a vehicle they ask if it's the war vets. They're afraid to sleep in their own rooms."
John Nkomo, the home affairs minister, denied that officials have been mistreating the white farmers. He attributed the violence to a handful of criminals. He said the deadline was necessary to deal with farmers who have refused to turn over underused sections of their farms.
"We have to deal with this land matter once and for all," Mr. Nkomo said. "As far as we are concerned, we are correcting an injustice."
In the impoverished village of Chikhovo, where hundreds of hungry people waited hours to receive cornmeal from the charity World Vision, many seemed doubtful. They agreed that officials should right the historical wrongs that left blacks stranded on crowded, rocky soil. But Lloyd Tafirenyasha, who scrapes by on one bowl of porridge a day, said he could not understand how farmers could be evicted while millions of Zimbabweans were going hungry.
"We wake up in the morning with no food," said Mr. Tafirenyasha, 18. "We need help. Those who are good in agriculture, they should continue. Those white farmers, they must stay for now."
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