From the opening lines of The Fear, Peter Godwin makes it clear he does not intend to write a neutral chronicle of the land of his birth. "I am on my way home to Zimbabwe, to dance on Robert Mugabe's political grave," he writes. "The crooked elections he has just held have spun out of his control, and after 28 years the world's oldest leader is about to be toppled."
Godwin never gets his victory jig. He was writing on April 2, 2008, five days after Mugabe had failed to win the country's presidential election and his Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) had lost its parliamentary majority. But what initially appeared undeniable quickly became uncertain and then unthinkable as Mugabe unleashed a three-month campaign of terror against his opponents.
It's the kind of tale generally best told by an impartial observer. Godwin is not that: he is a white Zimbabwean, author of two books, Mukiwa and When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, about being white and Zimbabwean and he is facing a regime that believes only blacks belong. But his book is not only extraordinary journalism; it is also a refutation of Mugabe's big idea: that race determines everything.
The Fear doesn't start out that way. Godwin initially spends time with white farmers, many of them family friends. Their stories of violent farm invasions and Zimbabwe's economic decline are a moving portrait of a dying world but also something of a sideshow. Godwin cannot hope to tell the tale of a country of 12 million black Africans through the experiences of a few thousand whites, many of whom fit the profile of the old colonialist by turns full of grit and bitter about their reduced circumstances. Mugabe's goons, at least at this stage, are two-dimensional: fat, AIDS-ridden wreckers of homes, farms and forests.
As the violence accelerates, Godwin is drawn out of his world. He visits hospitals to talk to Mugabe's black victims. He documents names, dates, descriptions of beatings and torture. He learns Zimbabweans have given this new period of suffering a name: chidudu, "the fear" in Shona. And he re-evaluates his role: "I find myself settling on a phrase that I have always avoided, a description I had found pretentious, but that now seems oddly apt bearing witness."
Godwin goes on to produce the most comprehensive account yet of the brutality that followed the 2008 general election. He also zeroes in on Roy Bennett, a white opposition leader and a particular target for Mugabe who provides Godwin with his most valuable lesson. What Godwin has missed all these years, he writes, is "that despite appearances, the Roy Bennett story is no longer about race; it has moved beyond that." Bennett, who speaks fluent Shona and was elected by the people of Chimanimani, who call him Pachedu "one of us" shatters Mugabe's mythology: "Roy exposes the lie of what Mugabe pretends to be."
Mugabe, 87 in February and reinvigorated by lucrative new diamond mining, is demanding a fresh election this year. The fear may return. But Godwin's reporting uncovers a paradoxical hope. By impoverishing all Zimbabweans, Mugabe forged a tentative unity among them, whatever their color. Early in the book, Godwin watches a group of Mugabe supporters evicting a white farmer. The crowd's leader hails Mugabe as "the one who brought freedom to this country." "Are you Zimbabwean or not?" he continues. "We are Zanu-PF supporters here [and] a true Zimbabwean ... participates in the party." By his book's end, Godwin has amassed the proof, from blacks and whites, to turn that on its head. Mugabe ruined his country. And a true Zimbabwean like Roy Bennett like Godwin himself transcends race.
This article originally appeared in the April 4, 2011 issue of TIME.