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Mark McKinnon, second from left, whose family fled Zimbabwe for Canada after their farm was invaded, calls it ‘crazy talk’ that farmers would return to the country after its regime change.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Within weeks of fleeing their Zimbabwe farm and arriving in Canada, the McKinnon family brought their children on a nervous visit to a police station. It was an attempt to overcome the fears they had acquired from years of arrests and harassment under an authoritarian regime.

"Our whole family were frightened of anyone in uniform," Markham McKinnon recalls. "You mention the word 'police' and we'd go into shock."

They were given a tour of their local police station in Stouffville, north of Toronto. And after a long chat with friendly police officers, the McKinnons finally began to relax.

It was part of their adjustment to a new life in a peaceful country after invaders seized their Zimbabwe farm in 2016. And it helps explain why they have little interest in returning to Zimbabwe – despite the ousting of long-ruling dictator Robert Mugabe and the reassurances of the new rulers.

The McKinnons are among an estimated 4,000 white commercial farmers who lost their land in the invasions and occupations that began 18 years ago. But today, the new government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa is promising to end the illegal seizure of farmland and to provide "inclusiveness" for everyone. The pledges are intended to resolve one of Zimbabwe's most sensitive and controversial issues. Under the white minority regime when the country was known as Rhodesia, half of the arable land was controlled by a tiny number of white people. After independence in 1980, land redistribution at first was done on a voluntary basis. The land invasions, sometimes violent, began in 2000.

Of the estimated 4,500 white farmers in the country when the invasions began, only a few hundred remain on their farms today. The invasions triggered a collapse in Zimbabwe's agriculture production and then contributed to a broader collapse of the overall economy.

In his inauguration speech in November after Mr. Mugabe resigned, Mr. Mnangagwa said his government was "committed to compensating those farmers from whom land was taken." The government even allowed a white farmer to return to his land last month – prompting cheers and celebrations from his former farm workers, who had lost their jobs when the farmer was evicted at gunpoint.

Mr. Mnangagwa's military-backed government is keen to lure back foreign investors and stabilize the economy. His Agriculture Minister, former air force commander Perrance Shiri, said only those with legitimate rights must be allowed to occupy farms.

A senior Mnangagwa adviser, Chris Mutsvangwa, said the government is investigating the illegal takeover of farms. "Land reform is over," he said last month. "Now we want inclusiveness."

But farmers such as Mr. McKinnon are skeptical. "Nothing has changed," he told The Globe and Mail. "We've all been burned. We're taking a wait-and-see attitude."

Mr. McKinnon said he has been unofficially approached by Zimbabweans who would like his family to return to their 266-hectare farm, where they grew tomatoes and soybeans and raised animals for decades. But he is doubtful that any significant number of white farmers will be allowed to return to their farms in the short term, especially with an election scheduled this year. The government would see it as "political suicide."

He estimates that 90 per cent of dispossessed farmers, such as his own family, have put down roots elsewhere and won't return. The McKinnons escaped to Canada with only a suitcase each, having lost everything when their farm was seized. But now he has a job as the manager of a large chicken farm near Stouffville, his three children are in local schools, and they were able to buy household goods with $8,300 in donations from a crowdfunding site.

When thugs invaded their farm in 2016, the McKinnons were forced to flee to Harare and hide from the police. With the help of Canadian passports, which they had thanks to a Canadian grandfather, they were eventually able to fly to Toronto.

"Anyone thinking that the whites are going to run back to their farms – it's crazy talk," Mr. McKinnon said. "Our hearts are in Africa, we want to go back, but my head has to think about our future."

Despite the government's reassurances, Zimbabwe's farm invasions haven't entirely stopped. At least one farm has been invaded this month, according to Zimbabwean media.

And even the farmer who regained his land last month, Robert Smart, seems to be an isolated case. The occupiers of his farm were linked to the political faction of Mr. Mugabe's wife, Grace Mugabe, a fierce enemy of Mr. Mnangagwa. That made it easier for them to regain their farm after the change of regime. There have been no reports of other farmers returning.

"You can be allowed back if the government likes you, but if someone else wants the farm, you very quickly go," said Ben Freeth, a farmer and activist in Zimbabwe whose own farm was seized by invaders in 2009. "There's no way the government will give up power easily," he told The Globe. "They don't want to give certainty to anyone on the farms."

After the invasions, much of the farmland has fallen into disrepair or become idle, with its debts soaring. Some banks have recruited white farmers to live on the farms as managers or short-term tenants, in an effort to generate enough revenue to repay the debts. But these farmers have no security or land title, and their arrangements could be cancelled at any time, Mr. Freeth said. He estimated that only about 100 farmers have gone back to the land under this arrangement.

He is skeptical of the promises of compensation to the dispossessed farmers. In the new government's first budget last month, no money was allocated for compensation, he said.

His strategy, instead, is to pursue the legal rights of the farmers, using a 2008 judgment in favour of the farmers by a court of the Southern African Development Community, the regional bloc. The government rejected the ruling, but Mr. Freeth wants it to promise to accept the judgment as part of any deal to bring Zimbabwe back into international financial institutions.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says she hopes the resignation of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe leads to a “better chapter” for the country. Mugabe said Tuesday he will step down after 37 years in power.

The Canadian Press

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