SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
To Zimbabwe now, where elections are in 2008 elections were marred by extreme violence. Now, elections are once again on the horizon.
And as Anders Kelto reports, violence is escalating while many are still trying to heal.
ANDERS KELTO, BYLINE: In a quiet garden on the outskirts of Harare, a group of men and women sit in a large circle. They stretch their arms and perform breathing exercises.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND BREATHING)
KELTO: They're here with Tree of Life, an organization that connects victims of political violence, and helps them counsel and support one another. Today's participants have come from all over Zimbabwe to share their stories.
MARIA: I was awakened by a lot of noise. The room was in fire, everything was destroyed. So I had to run for my life with my kids.
KELTO: Members of the Tree of Life asked that their identities not be revealed to ensure their safety. This young mother from Mashonaland East says a militant group of Zanu-PF supporters came to her village just before the 2008 elections. They burned down huts in areas that support the MDC. Another man, who works in politics in a town called Shamva, says he was kidnapped and taken to a remote Zanu-PF base. He was told to provide the names of fellow MDC supporters while a dead body lay next to him.
DUDZAI: There was a dead man who was there, he was already decomposing. So they took me there, and they showed me - if you don't want to give us this information, you are going to be like this.
KELTO: During much of their 32-year rule, Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF Party has been accused of using this kind of violence to retain power. In 2008, Mugabe lost to the MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai in the first round of presidential elections. But Tsvangirai withdrew from a runoff vote after brutal attacks were launched against his supporters. Under heavy pressure from international leaders, the parties eventually formed a Unity government, with Mugabe as president and Tsvangirai as prime minister. Douglas Mwonzora, a spokesperson for the MDC, says the new government initially halted the violence.
DOUGLAS MWONZORA: It changed the lives of the ordinary Zimbabweans, it brought normalcy in our social and political life.
KELTO: But three years later, the Unity government has struggled to make progress. They are supposed to finish a new constitution and implement major reforms in the security sector, media and electoral process before holding new elections. Tony Reeler, director of the Harare-based Research and Advocacy Unit, says they're nowhere near those goals.
TONY REELER: We are very, very far from having the conditions that are necessary for a decent election.
KELTO: But despite the lack of progress, Zanu-PF is calling for early elections. Rugare Gumbo, a spokesperson for the party, says they're not afraid to anger the international community.
RUGARE GUMBO: They can only advise us. We are an independent and sovereign state. We decide when we should have elections, and when we should not have elections.
KELTO: Douglas Mwonzora, a spokesperson for the MDC, says early elections are unlikely. He says Zanu-PF members are trying to rush things along because they're concerned about President Mugabe's health.
MWONZORA: His health status is not satisfactory at all. I think they don't want a presidential candidate who will be in a wheelchair.
KELTO: Mugabe is 88 years old and his health is a constant source of speculation. He's believed to have prostate cancer, and makes regular trips to Singapore for medical treatment. But he has continued making public appearances, including an hour-long speech at a recent independence day celebration. And while there is much speculation about who will lead Zanu-PF when he dies, no clear successor has emerged.
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KELTO: Back at the Tree of Life, a soft-spoken young woman from a rural town called Murerwa says tension is now growing in her community.
JANE: So we are very scared with what is going to happen to us. Because the election is coming.
KELTO: She says threats and attacks are becoming more frequent, and people are pretending to support Zanu-PF to avoid being brutalized - just like they did before the 2008 elections. Meanwhile, the woman who's hut was burned says she doubts the violence will end, even if Mugabe passes away. She says Zanu-PF forces are too deeply entrenched.
MARIA: It will never be different with the same spirit of killing. I know that when these coming elections are coming, I know many people are going to die.
KELTO: For NPR News, I'm Anders Kelto. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.