Euphoric crowds of several thousand people have gathered in Zimbabwe’s capital to demand the departure of President Robert Mugabe after nearly four decades in power.
In a colorful gathering that even days ago would have drawn an immediate police crackdown, Zimbabweans giddy with joy raced through intersections, raising their arms in triumph. Young men shouted, laughed and embraced.
Some had posters with an image of the military commander who swept in earlier this week and put Mugabe under house arrest, with the slogan: “Go, go, our general!!!” Marchers handed flags to soldiers, who accepted and waved.
“It’s like Christmas,” said one marcher, Fred Mubay, who said Zimbabweans have been suffering for a long time.
The 93-year-old Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state, is said to be asking for more time amid negotiations with regional leaders that seek his exit with a veneer of dignity.
But he is virtually powerless and deserted by most of his allies, with others arrested, and the crowds in Harare on Saturday were making it clear the country was impatient to move on without him.
Even as concerns remained about who next would be in charge and what freedoms might be available if the military lingered in power - or if Mugabe’s longtime but recently fired deputy led a new government - people reveled in the rare chance to speak out.
The demonstrators, in the event approved by the military, hope a big turnout will speed up the official end of Mugabe’s rule, which is widely blamed for the collapse of an economy that was once one of Africa’s wealthiest.
Veterans of the long liberation war against white minority rule, once close allies of Mugabe, took part, along with opposition activists who have faced police crackdowns by the Mugabe government.
At an intersection, a vendor held up a newspaper with the headline: “Mugabe cornered.”
One driver was so jubilant that he got out of his moving car and danced in front of it for a couple of minutes as the empty vehicle coasted slowly down a street lined with cheering crowds.
Some white Zimbabweans joined the crowd at Harare’s Freedom Square, also known as Robert Mugabe Square. Some whites and blacks hugged each other.
Soldiers began approaching the demonstrators and urging them to head to the Zimbabwe Grounds, where speeches were set to be delivered.
The Zimbabwe Grounds were chosen for the symbolism. The location is where Zimbabweans gathered to cheer Mugabe’s return from exile in 1980 after the liberation war from white minority rule.
Now the crowds wish to meet there and urge Mugabe’s departure.
The 37-year-old Talent Mudzamiri was born soon after Zimbabwe’s independence.
“It’s like a relief,” he said. “Our voices have not been heard for a long time. The trend in Africa, when the people speak, they are not heard.”
He acknowledged that Zimbabwe faces challenges in the long term, but said: “The common enemy is Robert Mugabe. That’s for starters.” If Zimbabwe’s next leader is just as troublesome, he said, “we are going to come out again.”
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