By Basildon Peta, Southern Africa Correspondent
The United Nations has started two pilot projects to distribute relief food in urban areas in Zimbabwe as shortages continue to worsen. Even people in cities and towns who have the money to pay for food cannot find supplies.
The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) has been distributing food for some time in rural areas, which have suffered worst from drought and economic collapse under President Robert Mugabe's regime, but its decision to start giving aid in the urban areas is unprecedented.
The humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe is continuing to deteriorate, said Judith Lewis, the WFP's regional director for southern Africa and regional co-ordinator for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy on humanitarian crises. Some people were even approaching UN storage centres and offering money or possessions in exchange for relief food.
Asked why the UN had to spread its operations to cities and towns, where many people still have jobs, she said: "The issue is access to food. What we are seeing now is less and less food available, even to people who still have resources. That is a sign of vulnerability. If people are starting to suffer because they don't have access to food, we must look to that. We want to help people who need assistance, not because they have a label one way or the other."
The government has been accused of using food as a political weapon in the rural areas, where aid has been denied to people unable to produce a membership card of the ruling Zanu-PF party. Whole districts known to support the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) have been deprived of food. Ms Lewis said the UN had adopted a "zero tolerance policy" and had stopped food distribution in 12 places where there had been interference by government agents.
But Urban Johnson, Unicef's regional director for southern and eastern Africa, said malnutrition among young children was accelerating fastest in Harare and Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's two largest cities.
The plight of those like Tim Chikwate, a security guard who earns £12 a month, illustrates why the WFP is moving into the urban areas. "From my salary I can only buy a 10kg bag of maize meal – if I ever find it on the black market," he said. "That leaves me with nothing to buy any other food, and I walk more than 18 miles to and from work every day. It's unbearable."
Emmanuel Muchagonei works in a financial institution. He holds a degree in economics but wants to leave Zimbabwe to work in another country. "I have given up dreaming of a decent flat in town or owning even a battered car. My salary can't buy anything," said Mr Muchagonei, who lives in the slum township of Highfield. Inflation in Zimbabwe has soared to 230 per cent and the supermarket shelves continue to empty.
Ms Lewis said the government "needs to have a plan", especially for the black farmers settled on land seized from whites, many of whom now have to be fed by the UN. But instead of focusing on the food crisis, say Mr Mugabe's critics, the President has launched a crackdown against opponents while the world's attention is focused on Iraq.
More than 1,000 people have been arrested since the MDC organised a protest against his rule two weeks ago. Last week the President ordered his police to "shoot and kill" anyone who entered his official residence, amid threats that protesters would march to his house to demand his resignation.
The MDC's deputy head, Gibson Sibanda, has spent a week in jail and will remain there this weekend on charges of treason for helping organise the anti-Mugabe protest.
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