SUNNYSIDE, South Africa — They'd struggled for so long to bring Zimbabwe to this point: a vibrant, generally free election in which President Robert Mugabe suffered his first defeat in 28 years in power.
That was in March. But Zimbabwe's pro-democracy activists didn't bank on Mugabe's response: deploying government militias to kill and terrorize opponents before last month's second-round vote, forcing his election rival to withdraw and prolonging his grip on a suffering country.
Defeated and demoralized, with scores of their ranks dead or missing, Zimbabwe's legions of activists have gone into hiding at home and abroad. As Mugabe consolidates his power, many of the activists who've fled to neighboring South Africa say they don't know when it will be safe to return.
"Everyone is underground. The democracy movement is totally on hold," said Ishmael Kauzani, 33, a longtime activist who was kidnapped and beaten nearly to death by government militias in April. He now lives in a safe house in Sunnyside, a suburb of South Africa's capital, Pretoria, with three other activists in exile.
Never miss a local story.
Mugabe and political opponent Morgan Tsvangirai agreed Monday to begin talks on resolving the political crisis. But experts think that the 84-year-old president, who vowed during the election that "only God" could force him from office, is unlikely to cede any real power.
Mugabe's crackdown has targeted college students, grass-roots organizers and community-based members of Tsvangirai's party, the Movement for Democratic Change, who have close ties with voters, analysts and activists say. It suggests a concerted effort to cut down the youngest and most dedicated foot soldiers of a diverse coalition of pro-democracy groups that have agitated for more than a decade for an end to the Mugabe era.
The crackdown's swiftness and lethality have even hardened campaigners wondering how the movement will reconstitute itself. Opposition party officials say that more than 100 members have been killed and at least 1,000 imprisoned. Other civic groups say that tally doesn't include many of their members who've been murdered or tortured.
"As a strategy to destroy us, it was good," said Wiseman Mayengeza, 26, who left his wife and young daughter behind when he fled a government raid on an opposition safe house in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, in April.
Human rights groups say that civilians are still being beaten and denied medical treatment.
"It's a terrible disaster for the democracy movement," said Elinor Sisulu, a veteran Zimbabwean human-rights campaigner who lives in South Africa. "And it's particularly distressing that all this is happening at a time when the two sides are supposed to be in negotiations . . . and on the other hand people are in hiding and running for their lives."
Marlene Chiedza Gadzirayi, 21, said she began receiving threats last year after she was elected to the board of Zimbabwe's national union of university students, an outspoken group that frequently criticizes the government. Phone calls came at odd hours and anonymous voices warned, "We want to deal with you," or threatened to rape her and infect her with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
After the March election, ruling-party militias started turning up at her family's home, asking for her. At that point, Gadzirayi, an accounting student, was helping to manage the finances of a leading activist group, the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition. She was among the few people in the country who knew where such groups were getting funding.
"That's why I had to come to South Africa," she said recently at the group's offices in Johannesburg, less than a week after she arrived. "They would have wanted me to expose all the organizations that were assisting (the opposition). Anyone could have ended up dead."
Kauzani and Mayengeza were active in the National Constitutional Assembly, a consortium of student, labor and religious groups that formed in 1997 to campaign for a new constitution. Kauzani was also among the first members of the opposition party when it began in 1999.
Both said they were on government watch lists for organizing demonstrations throughout the country. Each has been jailed multiple times.
Three weeks after the March election, Kauzani said, a group of thugs clad in ruling-party regalia abducted him and a friend in Harare. They were driven about 100 miles away, dumped on the side of the road and pounded repeatedly with stones and sticks, until Kauzani's ribs were in pieces and he fell unconscious.
"They left us for dead," he recalled.
They regained consciousness and managed to get back to Harare, where they checked into Avenues, a private clinic. Two weeks later they were discharged. Kauzani set off for South Africa, but his friend, Better Chokururama, his leg still in a cast, drove to his family's village first to see his mother.
While Chokururama was en route with three other passengers, people in two unmarked trucks ambushed his car. His body and those of two others, including Kauzani's older brother, later were found mutilated or strangled to death. The fourth passenger is thought to have survived, but hasn't been heard from.
Now Kauzani is holed up with Mayengeza and two other young activists in a two-room apartment on an unassuming suburban street, 300 miles from the Zimbabwean border. The National Constitutional Assembly has rented the place for $650 a month, but there's no money for furniture, so for weeks the men slept in the same room on polyester blankets.
A few days ago, someone delivered a twin mattress, which two of the men now share.
With so many campaigners lost and scattered, and government militias roaming freely in Zimbabwe, no one can say when the democracy movement will regain its footing.
"It's one of the big challenges we have now," Sisulu said ruefully. "I wish I had an answer for that."
More from McClatchy: