HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe's coalition government launched a campaign of "national healing" and reconciliation on Friday, with political leaders urging supporters to end years of political violence and intimidation.
The opening ceremony in a Harare hotel produced a rare scene of conviviality between Zimbabwe's leaders, with President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai smiling and laughing with one another on a stage.
Mugabe told the poorly attended ceremony that his party members "will certainly do hard work to try and commit themselves to observe principles of nonviolence and reconciliation.
Mugabe has been accused by human rights groups of crafting a culture of violence and impunity.
Tsvangirai, a former opposition leader, described the campaign as a long but essential journey where "there can be no short cuts to deal with the pain and suffering experienced by so many of our people."
Mugabe declared Friday, Saturday and Sunday national days of dedication to peace marked by "prayer for us to succeed."
Mugabe commended the formation of an all-party "Organ for National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration" and called for unity among Zimbabweans to resist external interference in the troubled southern African nation's internal affairs.
Without mentioning Britain, the former colonial power; the United States; or other Western nations by name – to once again criticize them for trying to undermine him – Mugabe said Zimbabwe needs to protect itself from groups bent on "dividing us and tearing us apart." He said these include Western-funded charities, human rights and nongovernment organizations, some of his harshest critics.
"They sneak in using sweet little moneys to create their own NGOs which run counter to our own thrust," Mugabe said. "All leaders must now engage themselves in campaigning countrywide to educate our people on the need for nonviolence in life."
Militants and loyalists of Mugabe's party, as well as the police and military, are blamed for most of the violence that has plagued the nation in the last decade. The often-violent seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms beginning in 2000 has disrupted the agriculture-based economy, and the former regional bread basket now faces acute shortages of food, basic goods, medicine and gasoline.
Human rights groups have reported at least 200 deaths in the year leading up to Zimbabwe's March 2008 national election, as well as thousands of cases of illegal arrests, assaults and torture. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes.
Many of the perpetrators have been identified, but few have been prosecuted.
Tsvangirai told the gathering that national healing must take into account not only colonial era injustices before independence in 1980 but also massacres of more than 20,000 civilians in western Zimbabwe during an armed rebellion against Mugabe that ended in 1987, and more recent violence surrounding disputed elections since 2000.
"National healing cannot occur without justice," he said.
Tsvangirai said in one case this week a woman lay in a hospital after being brutally assaulted for her party affiliation.
"Sadly this is not an isolated case. We must make an unequivocal call to all our peoples and all our supporters for an immediate cessation of violence, persecution and lawlessness," he said.
(This version CORRECTS UPDATES with quotes from Zimbabwe's leaders, background; corrects there will be 3 days of national reconciliation (Saturday, Sunday and Monday). ADDS photos, byline.)