Zimbabwe's cholera victims find salvation in South Africa

Mugabe's police break up protest against health crisis by doctors and nurses
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When Pedzisai Rande suspected he had contracted cholera, he knew there was only one guaranteed outcome if he did not move quickly: death. He had just buried two friends with whom he shared a house in Harare's poverty-stricken suburb of Budiriro. They had succumbed to cholera. He had used the same source of water, a shallow well they had shovelled out a few yards from their house after going for two months without running water. When he began feeling weak and suffering from diarrhoea, he feared the worst.

So 25-year-old Mr Rande bartered his old television for space in the back of a haulage truck which dropped him in the border town of Beitbridge. There, he jumped the border to seek treatment at the main hospital in Musina, South Africa. Unlike Zimbabwe, whose once-enviable health sector has collapsed along with all major public hospitals and clinics, South Africa treated Mr Rande with life-saving medicine and he was released after five days. He vows never to return to Zimbabwe.

Zimbabweans have been fleeing their country in droves to seek help at the border hospitals in South Africa. The disease they brought with them has so far killed six South Africans and infected more than 400. Another cholera victim, Rumbidzai Munodawafa, says she was lucky to have been on her way to South Africa when she fell sick at the border and was able to get treatment in Musina. "The gods smiled on me at least," says Ms Munodawafa, 36. "I shudder to think what would have happened to me if I had fallen sick while still in Zimbabwe."

The International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed that six people had died in South Africa, with 400 cases reported. In Zimbabwe, the official cholera toll jumped to nearly 600 yesterday, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), but President Robert Mugabe was still underplaying the crisis by refusing calls to declare the epidemic outbreak a national disaster.

Instead, he deployed heavily armed police to break up a protest by doctors and nurses, inset, complaining about poor working conditions and lack of equipment to help them deal with the cholera outbreak. An attempted national protest by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions yesterday was brutally crushed, and at least 69 people were arrested, according to the labour movement.

Jestinah Mukoko, a former state broadcast official turned anti-Mugabe human rights activist, was abducted from her house near Harare by 15 armed men in plain clothes, and Amnesty International is demanding that the Mugabe regime explain her whereabouts.

Yesterday's protests follow unprecedented clashes on Monday, when dozens of unarmed soldiers were involved in running battles with mobs and riot police after seizing cash from vendors and illegal foreign currency traders. Army generals loyal to President Mugabe ordered a hunt for the junior soldiers involved.

The Zimbabwe Doctors for Human Rights accuses the WHO of underestimating the cholera deaths, saying that they have long exceeded the 1,000 mark. Government officials, who have been prevented from issuing accurate statistics officially, suggest that more than 4,000 have now died. There is no way to properly assess the tally because impoverished Zimbabweans are dying at home unreported and the WHO bases its estimates on those who die while attempting to access help at the state hospitals and clinics.

Officials of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, led by the party's vice-president Thokozani Khupe, who have been visiting Zimbabweans in the South African border hospitals, have blamed the cholera crisis on President Mugabe's misrule.

An open space in Musina has been cleared to cater for the thousands of Zimbabweans who are seeking medical attention in South Africa and who have been quarantined. Ms Khupe told the cholera patients her party would appeal to the international community to help end the epidemic. She said the patients had told her harrowing tales of their failure to get medical attention in Zimbabwe.