HARARE, Zimbabwe, Aug 21, 2002 (AP Online via COMTEX) -- Weary of fighting a government takeover of their lands, many white farmers have loaded up furniture and other belongings onto trucks and abandoned their homes under court orders.
The exodus followed the arrest this week of nearly 200 white farmers who defied a government plan to seize their lands and give them to blacks. Most were freed on bail and told by district courts to leave or face arrest again.
On Tuesday, farmers headed into towns to stay with friends or relatives or check into hotels, said the Commercial Farmers Union, which represents most of the country's white farmers. It was unclear if the exodus involved dozens or hundreds of farmers.
The union did not say how many of those freed on bail obeyed the orders to leave by Tuesday night.
The government had issued eviction orders demanding 2,900 white farmers leave their land by Aug. 9. Around 60 percent of those farmers stayed on past that date - sparking the wave of arrests.
Among those arrested was Colin Cloete, head of the Commercial Farmers Union, who appeared in court Monday.
He and at least 20 other farmers in the Selous tobacco and corn district, 45 miles west of Harare, were released on bail on condition they leave their land, said district union official Ben Freeth.
"It is a desperately sad situation. People are loading up their assets to move out. Many have nowhere to go and are looking for places to stay," Freeth said.
Of 96 white-owned farms in the district, three were still operating Tuesday, Freeth said. Most of the displaced farmers each owned a single property but were forced off their land despite promises by the government none would be deprived of their only homes or livelihood.
"Ethnic cleansing is exactly what it is. There's no other term for it," Freeth said.
Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena said Tuesday police had arrested 197 farmers across the country for defying government notices to quit their farms by Aug. 9. "The law is being enforced and court proceedings are to follow," he said.
Farmers refusing to leave their land face up to two years in jail and a fine. Many are contesting the legality of the eviction orders.
Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku defended the country's land reform program Tuesday, saying the process had not been smooth but was a vital step in correcting colonial-era injustices against blacks.
He blamed the chaos and unrest that has followed on the white farming community.
"Because the commercial farmers resisted the move, the situation exploded," he said at a conference of international judges in South Africa.
The increasingly unpopular government of President Robert Mugabe plans to seize nearly 5,000 farms - 95 percent of properties owned by whites - saying they are to be distributed to landless blacks.
Before the seizures began in 2000, about 4,500 whites owned one third of the nation's farmland, while 7 million black farmers shared the rest.
Critics accuse Mugabe of using the land issue to cling to power two decades after he led the nation to independence from British colonial rule. The main opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which includes many white farmers, supports orderly, legal land reform, but says the government's seizures have been illegal and destructive.
The often violent seizures have contributed to more than two years of political chaos in Zimbabwe, brought the country to the brink of economic ruin and contributed to widespread food shortages that threaten half the population.
About 186 opposition supporters have been killed in the unrest, including 11 white farmers.
By ANGUS SHAW Associated Press Writer
Copyright 2002 Associated Press, All rights reserved