Running on empty

Zimbabwe has expelled nearly all foreign journalists, so its slide towards starvation is largely hidden from the eyes of the world. Ludger Schadomsky gained rare access to witness the unravelling of a nation
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The Independent Online

A yellowing poster in the arrivals hall of Bulawayo Airport welcomes you to "Zimbabwe - Africa's Paradise". If there's an advertising-standards authority here, it's clearly neglecting its job. A sign cautions customs officials to be on the lookout for "Chechen and Peruvian" nationals. Luckily, my German passport awakens no suspicions, and I'm able to slip into the country unnoticed. Nearly all foreign journalists have been expelled from Zimbabwe by the notorious "Dr Mo", the information minister, Jonathan Moyo.

Zimbabwe was once renowned as the "bread basket" of Africa. When independence was declared in 1980, the new president, Robert Mugabe, confidently announced that his country would never want for food. Those days are long gone. Twenty-three years later, Mugabe is still in power, but in the hunger stakes, Zimbabwe now ranks alongside Ethiopia and Sudan. Two thirds of the population are now dependent on handouts from Western donors.

I travelled with the German non-governmental aid agency Help to Matabeleland, the region on the south-western border with Botswana. This is the heartland of the Ndebele people - literally, "Those with Long Spears", descendants of South Africa's famous Zulu warrior tribe. Matabeleland has long been a centre of opposition, first to 19th-century British exploitation, then to the Mugabe regime. In the early 1980s, some 20,000 Ndebele were slaughtered by Mugabe's North Korea-trained Fifth Brigade in the culmination of a power struggle between Mugabe's Shona-speaking Zanu-PF party and the Ndebele-dominated Zapu party of Joshua Nkomo, who later became vice-president. Now, the people here are on the verge of starvation, but no one expects the government to help them. Aid organisations are their only hope.

Zimbabwe is no stranger to drought - there was a very bad one back in 1992. But the situation now is far worse. Several hundred people were already waiting for us when we arrived in a village to distribute food. One hundred kilos of maize, 16kg of beans, 1.5kg of salt and two litres of vegetable oil have to last a family a whole month. Help also distributes seeds: maize, sorghum, beans and millet. This dual approach aims to prevent farmers from eating the harmful seeds out of sheer desperation, instead of planting them. The recipients are mostly households headed by women whose husbands have succumbed to the Aids pandemic now ravaging Zimbabwe. Under a scorching sun, women and children wait patiently to have their names registered. Despite its denials, Mugabe's government is using food as a weapon, withholding supplies to punish opposition areas. Help has therefore enlisted the assistance of local churches to identify the most needy. The NGO also provides training for small-scale farmers - something notably absent from the government's self-proclaimed resettlement programme. "Help People Help Themselves" reads the sticker on the agency's 4WD vehicle. But ask the Zimbabweans what would become of them if the foreign aid organisations weren't there to help them, and they answer, "We would starve".

Mugabe introduced his contentious land distribution programme in 2000. Since then, 4,000 white Zimbabwean farmers have been driven from their land, along with 300,000 black Zimbabwean farm workers. The "white farms" were redistributed among landless black supporters of Mugabe's Zanu-PF party and so-called "war veterans". These must have displayed an extraordinary precocity since, at the time that Zimbabwe was struggling to gain independence from Britain, many of the "veterans" were still in nappies.

These fighting prodigies have, however, no understanding of agriculture, and although Mugabe rewarded them with farms, he provided them with neither equipment nor seeds. Even the government has now admitted that at least 40 per cent of the farms that kept Zimbabwe in such abundance are now lying fallow, with the rest producing far less than their potential. The lack of food is a man-made, not a natural disaster.

None the less, Mugabe looks bent on continuing with his policy of land reform. Legislation is to be passed soon to speed up the process of land acquisition. This will be welcome news to the ruling élite: Jonathan Moyo, the former union heavyweight-turned-information minister, is said to have acquired at least three of the farms expropriated by "war veterans". Moyo, however, may have other problems at the moment. During his union days, he published a book, Voting for Democracy, which lambasted, of all things, Mugabe's land-acquisition programme. Much to the author's embarrassment, the book is supposed to be a bestseller in Zimbabwe - among those who can still afford to buy a book, that is.

The Zimbabwean dollar has become virtually worthless. It has been pegged to the US dollar for the past nine months at 824 to one, but $1 now fetches up to Z$6,000 on the black market. Inflation has reached 619 per cent, and even the finance minister admits that it's about to get a lot worse. Prices are so ludicrous that ordinary Zimbabweans are unable to buy even basic items. Bread is Z$2,500 one morning, Z$3,000 the next. In November, the price of a pair of glasses was Z$1.2m, 10 times what it was a year ago. If you manage to find petrol at all, a litre will set you back a staggering Z$4,000. It used to be Z$65. Around 70 per cent of the population are unemployed, and those who don't lose their jobs are forced to give them up because their wages barely cover the bus fare. Galloping inflation depreciates the value of salaries, and pushes even low-income employees into the highest tax bracket of 45 per cent. In fact, when a rumour started that the security thread in the Z$500 note contained traces of platinum, thousands cut them up and smuggled the supposedly valuable metal over the border to South Africa.

I took a plane to the Victoria Falls. The regular bus service had been suspended because of the fuel shortage. I had to carry my money hidden on my body, as police stationed at random road blocks were confiscating foreign currency. The Falls were once Zimbabwe's biggest tourist attraction, but tour operators there told me that business is down a staggering 70 per cent. The "traditional dances" performed outside Vic Falls airport smacked of a government-orchestrated exercise in damage control.

Faced with the utter ruination of their country, Mugabe and Co comport themselves with brazen cynicism. Their policies are driving Zimbabwe ever deeper into bankruptcy, but ministers and administrative officials are earning a fortune by buying dollars at the official exchange rate and trading them on on the "parallel" market.

To get around the problem of the useless banknotes, the government has invented so-called "bearer cheques", a kind of Monopoly money. But there is a snag: the money is only valid until early 2004. Zimbabweans, who have cultivated a particularly bleak sense of humour, have another name for them: "burial cheques". As puns go, this one isn't very funny when you consider that for Zimbabweans, burials have become an all-too-frequent ritual. A recent study found that in the past year, 90 per cent of all households had cared for a terminally ill person. The HIV-Aids epidemic in Zimbabwe has reached horrifying proportions: every week it is estimated to kill between 3,000 and 4,000 people. The health-care system has effectively collapsed, with trained Zimbabwean medical personnel fleeing the country for greener pastures in the UK and elsewhere. Hundreds of thousands of children have been orphaned by the disease, and no one knows who will look after them.

Whoever doesn't die of Aids or starvation runs the risk of becoming a victim of political violence. The day I arrived in Bulawayo in late November, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions had called for marches across the country to protest against the government's economic incompetence. Nurses were demanding an 8,000 per cent pay rise. The marches were declared illegal well in advance; Zimbabwe's strict security laws prohibit any kind of protest without police permission. The unions went ahead anyway, and the demonstrations were broken up by riot police. Several hundred protesters and trade union leaders were arrested in Bulawayo, Harare and other major cities.

I spoke to a doctor who has treated victims of torture. He described how alleged opposition supporters come to him with their soles beaten to a pulp. Women are repeatedly raped by the infamous "Green Bombers'", self-styled militia gangs that are wreaking havoc on communities. Even children are punished - in government hospitals, doctors refuse to vaccinate the children of opposition supporters.

"Mugabe has destroyed our country," declares Pius Ncube, the Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo. At first glance, the priest seems reserved, almost shy; but appearances are deceptive. The tall man with the thick horn-rimmed glasses is a relentless campaigner for human rights, and the most prominent Zimbabwean critic of the Mugabe regime. When news spread that Ncube had suffered a stroke, people rushed to his residence, sick with anxiety. We've arranged to meet at a retreat two hours' drive from Bulawayo, and I'm beginning to wonder whether "they" have found out that I'm a journalist when police stop our car for the second time. But we get through, and when I arrive at the rendezvous, Ncube is in high spirits. "The government wanted to bribe me with a farm as well," he jokes, "but I was able to resist the temptation."

He continues on a more sober note. "Here, people disappear overnight. Others are tortured, the press is under siege, and the freedom of assembly is restricted. In the first four months of this year, 180 people starved to death in my diocese alone. Young girls and boys are turning to prostitution simply in order to survive."

The archbishop is a thorn in the side of the government. Jonathan Moyo tries to discredit him by calling him a "crazy priest", and a "very troubled soul". But the government can't ignore Ncube because he refuses to keep quiet. "Yes, I get threats," he admits. "But they've silenced everybody else. Someone has to speak for the people."

Ncube's uncompromising stance has earned him a reputation as "the voice of the voiceless". But although he is highly regarded in the West, his appeals to Zimbabwe's neighbours fall on deaf ears. In September he gave a press conference in Johannesburg alongside former members of Mugabe's youth militia. The ex-militiamen described how they had participated in the rape, torture and murder of the government's opponents. Ncube accused African leaders of being blind to human- rights abuses in Zimbabwe: "African leaders are a club of rich men who don't care about their own people."

However, Mugabe waited in vain for an invitation from the Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo to attend the recent summit of Commonwealth heads in Abuja. Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth after the farcical general election in March 2002, in which Mugabe clung to power for the fifth time amid accusations of violence, intimidation and electoral fraud. In December, despite the opposition of some of Zimbabwe's neighbours, the Commonwealth voted overwhelmingly in favour of extending the suspension. As a result, Mugabe announced the withdrawal of his country from the organisation.

The dispute over how to deal with Zimbabwe has shaken the Commonwealth. Although several African and Asian countries also voted against him, Mugabe and others are playing the race card and accusing "white" countries of hijacking the organisation. His petulant decision can, however, only increase his country's isolation - and the suffering of the Zimbabwean people.

© Ludger Schadomsky and Charlotte Collins