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Raymond Whitaker: We can reach Zimbabwe's people

As Mugabe recruits thugs with the promise of a square meal, spreading the truth is the watching world's most powerful weapon

After a year of unparalleled misery, Zimbabwe can only expect worse in 2009. To understand what that means for the country's hapless people, consider what happened in 2008.

This was the year in which Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF regime abandoned any pretence of governing legitimately. After a violent election campaign descended into all-out thuggery, forcing Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to pull out of the second round of the presidential poll after leading in the first, African nations were sufficiently shocked to force Mugabe and his opponent into a power-sharing agreement. But now the President has rejected the deal, and is openly challenging his neighbours to do something about it.

Not only has the government abandoned legitimacy, but it has also ceased any semblance of administration. When I went to Zimbabwe in April, inflation was sky high, the currency was all but worthless, and millions had left the country in search of work. Yet people somehow coped, through barter, cross-border trading or remittances from relatives abroad. By the time I returned in November, however, the country's downward slide had become a free-fall. Doctors, nurses and teachers have walked off the job because they cannot feed themselves. Institutional collapse is beginning to erode the country's infrastructure, and cholera is spreading fast.

In the midst of all this, the government has made it plain that its only interest is in retaining power. It cannot be bothered to rescue its own population from starvation, but it has seized a leading human rights activist, Jestina Mukoko, and about two dozen others. Fulfilling the latest paranoid official fantasy, they have been charged with organising the military training of young Zimbabweans in neighbouring Botswana to overthrow the government. Mukoko's friends were relieved that she was alive, having been taken away at dawn. The high court ordered her release, but the government simply ignored the ruling.

For some, all this hand-wringing over Zimbabwe is misplaced. In the Democratic Republic of Congo or Darfur, they point out, there is mass rape and murder. That is true, but there are reasons for us to consider Mugabe's behaviour outrageous, and not merely because we used to be responsible for Zimbabwe.

The main one is that he has taken a country with advantages that Congo or Sudan never had, and reduced it to brutal squalor. The pity that people feel for his subjects is shown by the response of readers to our Christmas appeal for Save the Children's work in Zimbabwe, which has raised more than £40,000. Dismay at the state of Zimbabwe is all the greater among people who remember what the country used to be like.

When I was growing up in neighbouring South Africa and Ian Smith declared independence, setting off a nasty bush war, what was then Rhodesia still seemed less totalitarian than the apartheid regime. And when majority rule was negotiated and Mugabe came to power, the stability and modest prosperity of the new Zimbabwe were unanswerable ripostes to those in South Africa who claimed that the only alternative to white rule was bloody chaos. It took another 14 years for black South Africans to achieve what their neighbours gained in 1980 – one reason why their leaders were, until recently, so squeamish about criticising Mugabe.

Somehow his ruthless suppression of the Matabele minority in the early 1980s, which cost some 20,000 lives, did not register either with me or most international observers. When I visited Zimbabwe for the first time a decade later, it reminded me of an earlier, more peaceful South Africa, before the violence and political repression got into full swing. The people were, and are, optimistic and friendly. It frustrates those who wish Mugabe's people would rise up against him, but heightens indignation at the way they are being treated.

What those who have never been to a country like Zimbabwe fail to understand is that it is easier to control a population that is weakened by hunger, and where thugs can be recruited with the promise of a square meal. The "war veterans" and the "youth militias" are being exploited as well as the people they are beating up. That is the worst thing Mugabe's rule has done to his land. He is almost certainly right, unfortunately, that none of his neighbours will take military action to oust him, and it is absurd to imagine that they would allow us to do so. Nor should we: what was wrong in Iraq would be wrong in Zimbabwe too. We have to find other ways to get him to go.

But while we wait for sanctions and moral pressure to work, we do not have to tolerate Mr Mugabe's propaganda. His own people are told that their suffering is because of British and American embargoes, when in fact they apply only to him and his circle. While accusing Britain of wanting to re-colonise Zimbabwe, he has abdicated responsibility for the country's health and welfare systems to foreign NGOs and charities, many of them British-funded. We have to look after his people as best we can, because he will not. Perhaps we should be less shy about pointing it out.