Faced with increasing reports of deaths from malnutrition in Zimbabwe, churches are openly defying an edict from President Robert Mugabe that only ruling-party officials may distribute food aid.
The churches' defiance comes as an independent newspaper, the Financial Gazette, reveals today that the the 77-year-old leader has ordered bomb-proof underground bunkers to be dug around his home and offices, as well as the delivery of 86 army trucks believed to come from Austria although there is an EU embargo on defence equipment to Zimbabwe.
The underground chambers, to be built of reinforced concrete, are being planned to allow Mr Mugabe to prepare for unrest or civil war, in the event of his losing next year's elections, according to the paper.
In Bulawayo and rural districts in the south of the country, Mr Mugabe's campaign to stay in power has already translated into hunger among thousands of people, according to the prominent Roman Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube.
He said: "The hunger is caused by the government's hypocrisy. It wants to distribute food assistance itself, so as to buy votes. It does not care how many people die as long as it can stay in power."
The looming crisis comes after Mr Mugabe earlier this month banned hundreds of the country's commercial farmers from working their land and told their properties had, in effect, been nationalised.
The regional World Food Programme director, Judith Lewis, said: "What we are seeing is a developing complex emergency.''
In Masase, a village of some 2,000 people in the Midlands, it is the Lutherans who are defying the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), and covertly supplying food.
It is to people like Reverend Anders Berglund, from the Swedish Church, that Zimbabwe's Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, refers when he claims foreigners "might try to smuggle election monitors into Zimbabwe using the guise of food aid''.
Rev Anders said: "Children are fainting in class and the school day has had to be shortened because kids do not have the energy to concentrate."
Masase is a well-kept village which voted for Zanu-PF in the parliamentary elections.
Despite living in a "privileged'' place, the women struggle to feed their families. Dozens of them congregate every day at the Vashandiri milling co-operative, set up by the church. Here, for a small fee, they mill maize corn and turn a profit from selling the flour, which is the staple food in these parts. But they are unable to grow their own maize due to poor weather conditions. For two years, the south and east of the country, which are drought and flood-prone, have been subject to devastating weather
Michael Ncube, co-ordinator of the Catholic Development Commission in Bulawayo, said: "Matabeleland is mainly a cattle and ranching area. Crops do not do well here at the best of times. Two years of bad weather is too much for people to bear. Now their seeds are depleted. So as well as supplying food aid to children, breast-feeding mothers and the elderly, we are buying maize and sorghum seeds in town and transporting them to rural areas were we sell them for less than we paid."
Food experts explain that Zimbabwe usually a "food-surplus country'' is in normal circumstances capable of assisting its southern and eastern provinces when disaster strikes. But the political turmoil in fertile Mashonaland, in the north, was so intense ahead of last year's parliamentary elections that stocks were never built up.
To the archbishop, a long-time critic of Mr Mugabe, Matabeleland's crisis has a more sinister explanation. "We have always been neglected because we have a history of not supporting Zanu-PF," he said.
The Most Reverend Ncube, who received so many death threats ahead of last year's elections that the Vatican demanded that Mr Mugabe guarantee his safety, said 80 per cent of people in Matabeleland live below the poverty level. He said: "As far as I am concerned Mr Mugabe can take a flying jump into the Zambezi River.
"Last year, Matabeleland voted against the government. Now they are not distributing food here ... So we are having to circumvent rules to help people keep body and soul together. We did not tolerate racism when there was white rule here, and we will not tolerate this."
* Lovemore Madhuku, the 34-year-old law professor who was arrested while trying to organise a demonstration on Tuesday in Harare, was set yesterday to spend a second night in police custody. Pro-democracy campaigners said he had still not been charged or allowed to see a lawyer.Reuse content