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Living and dying in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe does not welcome journalists, so I have stuffed the familiar accessories of a tourist into my camera bag - a travel guide and sun lotion. I pass through customs without hindrance, but am forced to declare all the foreign currency I have with me. Foreign currency reserves are at low ebb under the Mugabe regime -- there have even been reports of tourist coaches being stopped and the passengers robbed of their foreign denomination notes.

Half the population dependent on UN for food
In the arrivals section of the airport, I see a sign in German that reads "Simbabwe - Afrikas Paradies". Appropriately enough, it has turned yellow with age. After three years of kamikaze politics, Zimbabwe is no longer the "pearl" or "bread basket" of Africa that it once was. "There will never be any shortage of food in Zimbabwe" trumpeted Robert Mugabe when Zimbabwe became fully independent in 1980. Twenty three years later, the former British colony is now in the same category as hunger-stricken countries such as Ethiopia or Sudan. 5.5 million Zimbabweans now depend on the United Nations for food - that's half the population. In the year 2000, Zimbabwe produced 1.5 million tons of grain. The most recent harvest yielded just 800,000. The next one is expected to be disastrous. Other statistics tell an equally depressing story. In 1980 a house in a middle-class suburb cost 23 thousand Zimbabwean dollars (Z$). Nowadays it cost 35 million Z$. A litre of petrol used to cost 65 Z$. Now you have to pay 4000 Z$, assuming you can find any!

Hyper-inflation - tragic and grotesque
The cynicism of Mugabe and his henchmen knows no bounds. While the population starves, they capitalise on the misery by making fortunes on the parallel market. Hyper-inflation is not only tragic, it is also grotesque. The 500 Z$ note has a metallic thread and it was rumoured that this contained traces of the costly element platinum. Zimbabweans then cut thousands of the worthless notes to pieces, keeping the threads which they then smuggled across the border into South Africa.

The Zimbabwean government now prints so-called bearer cheques which Zimbabweans with their macabre sense of humour have nicknamed "burial cheques" (right).

Zimbabwe money

But this jest is uncomfortably and tragically close to the truth. One survey shows that 90% of all Zimbabwean households have been caring for somebody who is - or was - dying over the last twelve months. Many are victims of the AIDS epidemic which claims between 3000 and 4000 lives every week. In parts of the country, only the elderly adults survive. Nobody knows who will care for the hundreds of thousands of AIDS orphans. Others die of hunger - some five thousand last year - or are victims of politically-motivated violence. One foreign doctor who covertly treats torture victims (photo) speaks of patients who have been systematically raped and who have ha the soles of their feet beaten to pulp. Doctors in state hospitals will often refuse a child an inoculation because its mother is a "supporter of the opposition".

Eight thousand percent pay increase
I arrive in Bulawayo on a Tuesday, and the notorious riot police are out in force (below). The trade unions have called a protest march against runaway inflation and hospital nurses are demanding an eight thousand percent pay increase.

Zimbabwe, riot police

The police break up the demonstration with batons and tear gas and many people are injured. Somehow the population struggles on. Those who haven't already lost their jobs, are giving them up anyway because work just doesn't pay. Inflation - it varies between 700 and 1000 % - has catapulted even lowly office workers into the highest income tax bracket of 45%. A loaf of bread that yesterday cost 2500 Z$ sells one day later for more than 3000 Z$

" We would starve"
The south-western Matabele region on the border with Botswana is the homeland of the Ndebele, once a hotbed of resistance to the white minority regime of Ian Smith. These days they are once again in opposition - this time against Robert Mugabe, whose Fifth Brigade slaughtered 20,000 Ndebele at the beginning of the 1980s. Travelling west I pass farms that were occupied by so-called "war veterans" during Mugabe's controversial land redistribution campaign. (Many of these "veterans" were between one and ten years old during the struggle for independence!")

4000 white farmers, whose industrialised production facilities formed the backbone of the Zimbabwean economy, were expelled from their land. 300,000 black farm workers shared their fate.

The rainy season begins soon and the seed that is being distributed needs to be sown before the rain starts falling. 155,000 packets are handed out within the space of a few weeks For a family of ten there is also a month's food ration - a bottle of edible oil, two bags of sugar, maize and sorghum. If you ask Zimbabweans what would happen to them if foreign aid organisations didn't exist, they reply "we would starve".

Egomaniacal dinosaur
The respected German television journalist Hans Joachim Friedrichs once said a good reporter does not get personally involved in a story. Yet in Zimbabwe, it almost impossible to preserve professional detachment I remember visiting the country in the mid- and late-'90s, when tourists flocked to Zimbabwe. There was cold beer on the terrace of the White Horse Inn and white sheets on the beds of the night train that ran from Bulawao to Victoria Falls. All gone, destroyed by an egomaniacal dinosaur, who could have gone down in history as the liberator of Zimbabwe, but who will instead be remembered as the plunderer of Africa's bread basket.

Equally reprehensible is the conduct of western government leaders who have refused to come to Zimbabwe's aid. Top of the league must be the oily Monsieur Chiraq. He invited Mugabe and seventy of his sycophants to Paris, even though a travel embargo was in force.

This was a bad blow for all who are campaigning for the international isolation of the Mugabe regime. And Africa's leaders who babble endlessly about a "renaissance" of the continent have even elected the autocrat as their goodwill ambassador.

There are those who say that Mugabe and others of his ilk can be forced to see reason by throwing their sons out of American and British schools and universities, or if doctors refuse to treat politburo members. But that would require vigour and a sense of purpose -- not the spinelessness that all too often characterises the political class.

Zimbabwe, 18th November 2003

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