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I swore I'd shoot men who came for my Zimbabwe farm

By Chris Thornton

When seven machete-wielding thugs burst into Kevin Pope's farmhouse in Zimbabwe, two things stood between him and a bloody death: his pistol and a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Pope, a British Army officer who'd carried the religious icon through encounters with the IRA in South Armagh and Fermanagh, held up both to the men who'd come to force him off his 3,000-acre farm five years ago.

"I said 'I swear on this Sacred Heart that I will shoot if you don't leave the house'," recalled Captain Pope, now serving with the Army in Belfast.

They left, but so did he. Six weeks later he was back in the Army and serving in Iraq - left only with the title deeds to his wrecked farm and the hope that he could one day return.

As Zimbabwe independence day returns focus to the country's turmoil, Captain Pope spoke of his fears that Robert Mugabe will unleash a violent crackdown. He is particularly concerned for his elderly parents and other relatives who remain in the country.

But now the 46-year-old also carries hope - because he says the recent elections in the country signalled a decisive shift against Mugabe.

Captain Pope is now based in Belfast with the TA's 253 Medical Regiment. He grew up in Zimbabwe, joining the British Army in 1982, shortly after the civil war that brought down white Rhodesia and brought Mugabe to power.

"I'd always wanted to a be soldier and a farmer and follow in my father's footsteps," he said. He became an officer in the King's Own Scottish Borders, serving in Northern Irealnd and the Middle East in the first Gulf War.

But Army cuts and a deadline on a deal for white farmers in Zimbabwe convinced him to return home while he could.

After a year at agricultural college in England, he returned to his father's farm, about 95 miles northwest of the capital, Harare.

He worked his father's farm - "Because of the Army, I was nicknamed the Colonel by my African neighbours" - and saved up for his own place.

He bought Kaduna Farm in 1999 while working for his father, nine miles away. A "Certificate of No Present Interest" should have guaranteed him immunity from any land grabs by Mugabe's regime. He dug trenches with his labourers. "It was back to my Salisbury Plain days," he said, referring to the Army training sites. "But I wanted to show them I could dig too."

Tobacco was his main crop, but as a non-smoker he wanted to move into other areas and spotted the potential of the organic beauty industry - producing tea tree oil, lavender and lemon grass, and other crops.

He also moved into safari tourism, promoting horseback tours to see ancient bush paintings, zebra and leopards on the farm. "All my money went back into build- ing up the land," he said.

In 2003, he fell victim to Mugabe's push to redistribute white farmers' lands to Africans - a policy linked to current food shortages in the country. Youths burned the wheat crop Pope shared with a black settler.

"The police came and took them away," he said. "The next day they were back. That's Mugabe's influence."

The youths pulled up his tobacco seedlings, then began intimidating his 60 workers.

"I was one of six farmers left," he said. "It was a form of ethnic cleansing, but I was determined to stay."

Captain Pope got a letter signed by Mugabe's sister, the MP for the area, that said his farm should not be touched. "Especially with that letter, I thought I was ok."

But when he returned to the farm, accompanied by two veterans from Mugabe's army, he was attacked by 20 men.

"They attacked the war vets first. That gave me 30 seconds to get in the house. All I had was my weapon, a mobile phone and my Sacred Heart."

He phoned police but they said they were unable to come because they had no diesel.

As seven of the men prepared to attack him, he phoned an Army buddy who said: "think of your children".

"I think because of that and my Christian belief, I didn't pull the trigger," he said.

"I actually cocked the weapon twice - mainly for my own confidence, but also so they could see the bullet and know I meant business."

Police arrived eventually, but Pope realised he could not continue: "I loaded tractor and trailer with whatever I could. My workers were beaten up and intimidated. The cattle boy helped me by getting out my Rhodesian ridgebacks and the horses, and the tractor driver and the maid who looked after my children all helped. They were beaten up."

He returned to Britain, where his children were living with his ex-wife. Six weeks after facing down the thugs, he was spending Christmas in Iraq. He still believes he will return to his farm.

"My nightmare is that Mugabe will rig the election, because there's no food.

"Enough's enough and it'll burst. I can't see how he'll keep oppressing people. I still think the will of the people will win. I'd love Zimbabwe to given a legitimate, fair, transparent election and the chance to be the jewel of Africa that it is."

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