Teachers have become the latest targets in Zimbabwe's post-election violence, in which abductions, intimidation and beatings have already left two dead.
"We have received bad news. As we speak, two teachers have been killed - beaten to death," Wellington Chibebe, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, told a gathering of workers in Harare, the capital, on 1 May.
Chibebe said the killings in the Guruve district of Mashonaland Central Province, in northern Zimbabwe, were the result of post-election violence orchestrated by veterans of Zimbabwe's war against British colonial rule, youth militia and soldiers.
The opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), said the violence was mainly targeting people in rural areas suspected of voting for the MDC in the election of local government, parliamentary and presidential candidates on 29 March.
The results of the presidential race have still not been announced, but President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party lost its majority in parliament for the first time since 1980.
MDC claims that a campaign, known as Operation Mavhoterapapi (Who did you vote for), is meant to intimidate voters ahead of an expected second round of voting for the presidential ballot. ZANU-PF has maintained that no presidential candidate obtained the required 50 percent plus one vote in the first round.
No one in front of the class
Children returned to classrooms to begin the second school term this week but found them empty. There were also hardly any teachers, particularly in rural areas.
"The situation in the schools resembles war zones, and there is no way teachers can report for work to face those death squads," Raymond Majongwe, president of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ), told IRIN.
|The situation in the schools resembles war zones, and there is no way teachers can report for work to face those death squads|
He said they had received reports of bands of war veterans moving from school to school, chasing teachers away. "The armed war veterans are closing down schools and saying they will bring their own teachers. In all these cases, teachers are being accused of being sympathetic to the MDC [and] badmouthing the government," Majongwe said.
At least one teacher was abducted a week ago and is being held captive by ZANU PF militias in Mudzi West district in Mashonaland East Province. "Our fear is that more could be under torture, or have been killed."
Blame it on the teachers
After the parliamentary election results were announced police arrested scores of election officials, accusing them of inflating opposition ballot figures when it looked like MDC was headed for victory. Many were teachers who had acted as polling officers.
Majongwe said the teachers were being beaten up, threatened with death and forced to pay "repentance fees" in the form of cash as well as goats and cattle.
Mutangi (not his real name), a teacher at a boarding school in Mhondoro district in Mashonaland Central Province, told IRIN that more than half his colleagues had not returned at the start of the new term because they feared being attacked.
"Soldiers and CIO [Central Intelligence Organisation] agents have been using rooms at a run-down hotel close to our school ... threatening to close down the school because Mugabe got only four votes at the polling station at the school," he said.
According to Mutangi, a number of his colleagues had already fled to neighbouring countries to join thousands of other Zimbabweans seeking better economic prospects and safety; others said they would wait for the presidential poll results, and would decide whether to leave depending on the outcome.
"My heart bleeds for the students who are innocent victims of a cruel power game. The fear and tension is easily noticeable in the poor kids," Mutangi said.
Parents were also keeping their children away from schools, fearing that they could get caught up in violence. "I wouldn't want to collect my child in a coffin, so I am keeping her at home," Sigmund Rutori, an engineer living in Harare, told IRIN.
He said the schools should not have opened "until they have cleaned up all that election mess and made sure that schools are secure and normal".
In a statement on 2 May, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) condemned the impact of the violence on children. "Responding to increases in violence affecting children, and growing hindrances to reaching the most vulnerable," UNICEF said, adding that it "deplores the actions of those who involve innocent children in Zimbabwe's current crisis."
Festo Kavishe, UNICEF's Representative in Zimbabwe, said: "Any violence against children, their families and their communities seriously threatens the wellbeing and long-term development of children."