Letters from Zimbabwe: Dear family and friends... we can't even afford to die now

One year ago, we published extracts of weekly e-mails from Zimbabwe by Cathy Buckle. She started sending them after her farm was seized and her marriage fell apart. This update - as President Mugabe acts against internet firms to block such e-mails - reveals how the struggle to survive has become harder, the tensions worse, the repression harsher
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The Independent Online

Saturday 31 May 2003

Saturday 31 May 2003

The person at the supermarket till in front of me had 47,000 Zimbabwean dollars worth of groceries and was paying the bill with huge blocks of $50 and $20 notes. The teller could barely cope. He told me he needed a new box for every third customer and the manager's office looked a lot like a warehouse.

Amazingly though, there is an incredible feeling in the air this week. A mixture of excitement, anticipation and relief is palpable in the country as we all know that at last the time has come for action. The opposition, trade unions and civic society have united and called for a week of well-organised and peaceful protests, street marches and demonstrations calling for the resignation of President Mugabe.

Saturday 7 June 2003

The week began and ended with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai being arrested. Hundreds of people were beaten by nervous police, army and state agents, at least two were killed and we have felt much like a country at war this week. After 40 months of mayhem, the events this week have again shown the world that land and race are not the issues, but the survival of a political party and its leader.

Saturday 12 July 2003

President George Bush said the situation in Zimbabwe was "sad", and then left [South Africa]. This week President Mugabe awarded himself a 600 per cent pay rise and now earns $2m a month. That's pretty sad when a Labour official told me this week that the minimum wage for a house worker is still just $3,457 a month [less than 5p a day].

Yes, Mr Bush and Mr Mbeki, what's happening here in our little country, which has no oil or weapons of mass destruction, is pretty sad.

Saturday 19 July 2003

It was my son's annual school play this week and he handed me the slip that asked parents to contribute to the half-time refreshments. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. If I made a cake, it would mean using my precious reserve of flour, replaceable only on the black market. I would also have to use the outrageously expensive block of South African margarine I'd had to buy last week and black market sugar.

I turned my thoughts to the sandwiches option. Sliced bread is now $1,500 a loaf if you can get it; again I'd have to use the precious margarine and then I'd have to find something affordable to use as a filling. With inflation having hit 365 per cent this week and a single egg now costing more than $130, I soon scrapped that option too. Oh God, I thought, how can something so simple as a plate of snacks become such a nightmare.

Saturday 16 August 2003

Maybe we are a nation of cowards. Maybe we are paralysed by fear. Maybe we are waiting for someone to come riding in on a white horse to save us. Or, maybe it's because we just don't want another war. We all keep hanging on, turning the other cheek, trying to help others in worse positions than ourselves and, if we can, making a stand. We are the moral victors and the one thing this government can never take from us is our pride and dignity.

Saturday 30 August 2003

There are 11 wards in Marondera; five had been won by default by the ruling Zanu-PF before today's voting even got under way. This was because candidates for the opposition had been harassed, threatened, beaten, forced to leave the town and been physically prevented from submitting their names with the nomination courts. There have been no public meetings, no posters or fliers, no maps showing people which ward they are in and basically a massive information shut down about this election in Marondera. So I set off to find out if I had the opportunity to vote. My first stop was the local junior school where I usually vote. It was deserted. The next stop was a senior school down the road where I talked to a security guard manning the school gates. The man looked at me as if were an alien from another planet. I phoned a friend who told me what I already feared: the ward I lived in had already been won unopposed by Zanu-PF.

Saturday 6 September 2003

Sitting outside one of the main banks this week was a man who used to be a worker on a farm just outside Marondera until it was taken over by war veterans. The man had a doctor's prescription. He said the script was for a cream. Behind his knee and on his calf were about 15 big blister encrusted sores, seeping and oozing. He said he didn't have enough money for the medication. It was going to cost $3,500. He showed me the two $500 notes he had managed to earn towards the cost. I pulled out my wallet and gave him the balance and the man's eyes filled with tears.

Saturday 13 September 2003

On a dusty siding near the main Marondera railway station, eight children were playing soccer. All were wearing tattered clothing and none was wearing shoes. The football was not a ball at all but plastic bags wrapped around each other. The children danced and waved at me as I watched, showing off like crazy and I waved back and smiled at their dirty, thin little faces, wishing they were sitting in classrooms.

Saturday 4 October 2003

Recently a friend's mother died. Burying his mother was a nightmare. Collecting her body from the hospital and moving it to his rural home cost $20,000, the coffin cost $80,000 and then there was the question of feeding all the mourners. He had no choice but to slaughter one of his two ploughing oxen and borrow from friends. Now he has a debt equivalent to more than a year's wage and can no longer plough his land and grow food for his family this year.

Saturday 15 November 2003

I am white and was born here long before Zimbabwe's independence. I did not approve of the repressive rule of Ian Smith and his Rhodesian Front and I do not approve of the repressive rule of Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF. In 1990 when we legally bought a farm with government approval in Marondera it was because we wanted to live in the countryside and try to make a living from farming.

Having the farm seized by drunken government supporters in 2000 and living side by side for seven months with what became a war veterans' headquarters and later a torture camp, was any mother's worst nightmare.Zimbabweans, regardless of their sex or colour, are again preparing to try to make our government hear our desperate calls. A weekend of national prayer and fasting is in progress and on Tuesday the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, has called for a national protest. Black skin or white, brown or beige, we are proud and determined Zimbabweans looking to the future.

Saturday 29 November 2003

This week, a young black woman came to my car window carrying a large enamel basin filled with wild mahobohobo fruits. The woman smiled at me. "I am Chipo's sister," she said. "Chipo died." I nodded and said how sorry I was. I asked about Chipo's baby son. The last time I had seen the boy he had been a fat, gorgeous baby who smiled and dribbled in my arms and his mother had clapped with cupped hands when I gave her all my own son's baby clothes. The woman said quietly: "I am sorry, Chipo's baby also died."

Aids is ravaging Zimbabwe. Official estimates are that 3,000 people are dying from Aids here every week. In almost every shop you see young men and women as thin as skeletons, with sunken eyes, grey hair, swollen feet and sores on their faces and necks.

Since October 2000 when government supporters chased my family off our farm, three of our seven employees have died of Aids. Two others are HIV positive. The daily assistance I used to be able to give to those employees with milk, fruit and vegetables from the farm, stopped in 2000. The free condoms I used to give out every month stopped too.

Saturday 27 December 2003

In the days leading up to Christmas we began stretching and sharing the bounty, making a little go a very long way and the simplest of things gave such joy. One woman who we gave toothpaste to, clapped her hands with delight, saying she could not remember when she had last been able to afford to clean her teeth. To someone else a tennis ball was the first real toy his 3 year old son had ever received. This youngster was born just after Zimbabwe's political madness began, and struggle and strife is all he has ever known. To another man, who writes the most amazing personal diaries about his struggle to survive in Zimbabwe's hell, two simple exercise books and a ball point pen were treasured gifts.

On Christmas Day the son of a neighbour arrived with a small enamel pot containing four home-made scones and four muffins. With much thanks and laughter the pot was returned to the boy's parents with six eggs and four little chocolates inside it.

Saturday 17 January 2004

I watched a child and knew for sure that she would soon be dead. Standing barefoot and in a filthy and torn dress, a wild-eyed and desperate girl of perhaps 11 stood in the middle of four lanes of traffic. Her hair was matted and had the characteristic orange colour that indicates malnutrition. On her back, wrapped in a towel, was a baby. It was perhaps her brother or sister. The girl just stood, counting filthy $20 notes in the middle of the road as luxury cars streamed past her. Perhaps she was trying to work out that she would need 100 of those dirty bills to buy the baby one litre of milk, or 125 of the notes to buy herself one loaf of bread. For an 11-year-old girl begging on the highway, a loaf of bread or litre of milk would represent a miracle.

The $30m that Hear the Word Ministries (formerly Rhema Church) gave to President Mugabe could have bought 12,000 loaves of bread or 15,000 litres of milk and saved the lives of hundreds of little begging girls.

Saturday 7 February 2004

Shortly after returning from watching football in Tunisia, the Minister of Education announced that headmasters from 35 schools across the country were to be suspended and prosecuted for raising school fees without government permission. In Marondera, my rates have gone up by 1,615 per cent. Water has gone up by 1,650 per cent and refuse removal by 1,150 per cent.

Saturday 14 February 2004

This week I visited a new supermarket. In the aisle where female sanitary products are displayed a group of six men stood in a bunch. As I and other women looked at the prices of sanitary towels, the men passed crude comments, made jokes and laughed loudly.

Women who grit their teeth, ignore the taunts and count their dollars to see if they can afford to keep themselves clean this month. There were neither tampons nor cotton wool to buy and a pack of 10 sanitary towels was $17,000. This is the equivalent of almost seven loaves of bread, so for a woman with hungry children at home, the decision about what to buy is non-existent. The same applies to even soap.

Standing next to me in the supermarket was a pretty young woman who picked up the small packet of sanitary towels, looked at the price, sighed, shook her head and then put them back and left.

Saturday 28 February 2004

The end of February marks the end of Zimbabwe's fourth year of chaos, and it is a month which will always be remembered as the time when the madness began. Shortly after the referendum in 2000 in which the people voted against constitutional changes, I described the invasion of our Marondera farm. "The war veterans had come. 'Hondo, Hondo, Hondo' (war), the war veterans shouted, again and again. Then they started whistling and singing. The dogs were going mad, barking and howling and scratching at the doors to get out. I closed all the curtains and locked myself in my study, sat down on the floor and put my hands over my head, sobbing and shaking."

In February 2001, journalists protested against the bombing of the printing presses of The Daily News. While this was happening, I was witnessing the agonising death from Aids of my ex-farm employee, Emmanuel. Neither he nor I could afford anti- retroviral drugs and Emmanuel's quality of life had collapsed since we had been forced to leave our farm. Saying goodbye to Emmanuel is not a day I want to remember. As I embraced him, I could feel every rib and hear his gasping struggle for breath. I knew I would never see him again. 'Go well Manuel,' I said, as his father and I lifted him into the car. 'Stay well, Mrs Cathy,' he whispered in response. Although he died shortly afterwards, his memory will always be a part of me.

In February 2002, two weeks before the presidential elections, political violence engulfed the country. One night my neighbour's house was petrol bombed because he was an opposition activist, and I wrote: "I ran out of my back door to see a huge fire consuming the house three doors away. A massive orange glow lit the sky and there were continuing explosions for the next hour as windows and other items heated and exploded. I ran inside to call the police and the fire brigade, but they would not come."

In February 2003, the shops were empty of staple food and the petrol stations were dry. Queuing was a part of everyday life, as were attempted protests, riot police and tear gas. World cup cricket matches began in Harare and I wrote about the death of 29-year- old Edison Mukwasi who was an opposition supporter and had been beaten and tortured while in police custody.

That takes me to February 2004. Life expectancy in Zimbabwe is now 37. Well over half of the population needs food aid, inflation is over 620 per cent, the daily free press has gone and every month judges resign from the bench. President Mugabe has just turned 80 and when asked how close talks were with the opposition he said: "The devil is the devil, we have no idea of supping with the devil." Looking back, I can hardly believe Zimbabwe has survived.

Saturday 4 April 2004

The most depressing thing about the elections now is the tired resignation with which people accept the results and the almost non-existent outrage.

Saturday 10 April

In January 2003, Gabriel was a human rights lawyer. He was called to defend an opposition member of parliament who was in trouble. Whilst consulting with his client, Gabriel was seized by armed police. He was held in a prison cell but then he was removed, shoved into a yellow vehicle, had his head covered with a black hood and was taken away to an unknown place. Gabriel was taken down three flights of stairs, stripped naked, had his hands and feet shackled and was abused, assaulted and interrogated for many hours.

He was forced to drink his own urine and lick his own vomit off the floor. He was hung upside down and beaten on the soles of his feet, he had wires attached to his toes and genitals and was repeatedly tortured with electric shocks. Gabriel was forced to write and sign documents implicating himself and other senior members of the opposition. Three days later the High Court ordered that Gabriel be released. Charges of trying to destabilise the government were thrown out of court, but then came the death threats that finally made Gabriel flee for his life to South Africa. Gabriel knows of at least 13,000 Zimbabwean asylum-seekers and torture victims in Johannesburg alone that need urgent humanitarian assistance. Asylum seekers arrive hugely traumatised, have no relations, money, accommodation or jobs. The South African government admits it has given asylum to only 11 people and that thousands have been rejected on the grounds that "there is no civil war in Zimbabwe".

Saturday 24 April 2004

I must admit to finding it increasingly difficult to find or see any hope in Zimbabwe's situation. This week I could write about the farmer who was "roughed up" in my home town or about thousands of farm workers living in the bush after being violently evicted from Kondozi farm in Odzi. I could also write about the violent assault that took place at the University of Zimbabwe, but there are just no words left to describe these horrors. Instead I sit here on a Saturday morning listening to music and my eyes are filled with tears.

Saturday 29 May 2004

There has been a blatant whipping up of rhetoric and anti-white sentiment in the media. "Racist, racist, racist" are the screams. In a country of 11 million people, generous estimates put the number of white people still here at about 70,000 - it is a minuscule proportion of the population but for four years and three months people with white skins have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong. We have become the easy targets, the incessant and obvious scapegoats.

The opposition offices in Harare have been attacked, windows smashed and property destroyed. A 35-year-old white farmer has been abducted, tortured and beaten black and blue on his back, legs, arms and buttocks. Another white farmer lies in hospital with two broken arms, stab wounds and a charge of murder hanging over him. A white woman has had her house stoned and been paraded through the streets, publicly humiliated and traumatised.

After the horrific events in Rwanda, the United Nations and the world said that never again would they sit back and watch genocide and ethnic cleansing. My message to them now is: "Are you sitting comfortably, ladies and gentlemen?"

Cathy Buckle's books on the Zimbabwean crisis, African Tears and Beyond Tears, are available in Europe and the UK from: orders@africabookcentre.com; www.africabookcentre.com ; www.amazon.co.uk

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