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Monday, 8 December 2008

Zimbabwe: a descent into hell

As Robert Mugabe finally accepts international help, is it one crisis too far for his brutal regime? By Fred Bridgland in Johannesburg

AS ROBERT Mugabe's Zimbabwe government swallowed its pride and asked for international help to contain a cholera epidemic it had insisted a few days earlier was under control, body bags were among the items it requested.

Zimbabweans are dying in their hundreds from a disease which, in the 21st century, should not be a mass killer.

Some are dying as they reach Zimbabwe's major hospitals, only to find them closed because they have no drugs, running water or working equipment. It is in these institutions that the United Nations and the World Health Organisation (WHO) count the dead, arriving at an official death toll of 575.

But the real number of dead is many times greater. The UN and WHO are unable to count those who die in their own homes in the urban townships or in the huts and fields of the rural areas.

WHO says that the normal fatality rate in a modern cholera outbreak, where clean water and medication are available, is below 1%. But the death rate among infected Zimbabweans is at least 4.5% and as high as 30% in remote areas, WHO said.

The disaster is so massive that Mugabe, who declared a state of emergency, has also asked for international food aid. His citizens are starving as a result of the collapse of agriculture following the expulsion of commercial farmers from 2000 onwards. Habitually, Mugabe has previously denied any need for outside help, once saying: "We are not hungry. Why foist this food on us? We don't want to be choked. We have enough."

But South Africa's African National Congress government, widely criticised for its softly-softly approach towards the deepening crisis within its northern neighbour, last week said the situation there had reached crisis proportions. "People are dying of starvation," said South African government spokesman Themba Maseko. "It is time for urgent action. We cannot sit with our arms folded."

South Africa has been alarmed by raw sewage pouring into the Limpopo, the river that Rudyard Kipling once described as "great, green, greasy and all set about with fever trees", which forms the 200-mile frontier between Zimbabwe and South Africa. The Limpopo, whose waters South Africans drink, bathe in and water their crops with, is now infected with cholera bacteria. People on the South African side of the border are now dying from the disease.

The cholera, with the toll of dead and infected increasing daily, is not a random mishap. It is a product of state failure, a direct consequence of decaying municipal infrastructure and a health system that can no longer offer basic services.

Last week, Save The Children said starvation in the Zambezi Valley was forcing people to eat meat infected with anthrax. At least three people had been killed by the lethal bacterium. "Many families are so hungry that they are taking meat from carcasses of their dead animals, even if they know it's diseased, and are feeding it to their children," said Save The Children.

As the state of emergency got under way, international organisations such as the International Red Cross and Care International began building field latrines and distributing medicines and oral rehydration kits. They took over responsibility from the state-run Zimbabwe National Water Authority for delivering disease-free water and repairing collapsed sewerage pipes.

Zimbabwe's cities and towns have gone without fresh tap water for months. Many urban households are unable to use their toilets, which are blocked by backed-up sewage. Parliament and the high court in the capital Harare closed down last month because of a lack of clean water.

Many people in Harare are walking more than three miles out of the city to bring back water in plastic containers from community boreholes. When water does flow from taps, people are frightened to use it. "It comes with a heavy smell. Sometimes it's greenish in colour, other times brown," said Tadiwa Chireya, a gardener in Harare's Greendale suburb.

"Funerals of people dying of cholera are a common feature of our daily lives," said Tapiwa Hove, who lives in the working-class Harare township of Budiro. "But it seems no-one cares. Sewage is flowing all over. It's like living in hell.

"People are dying at an alarming rate. The government denies this, but the reality is there for all to see. And we are thirsty in this land of plenty. Dry taps have become a way of life."

In response to the emergency, the WHO in Geneva has sent six cholera experts to Zimbabwe with supplies of rehydration salts and other medicines. "We are in front of a disaster," said WHO's global cholera co-ordinator, Claire-Lise Chaignat. "We won't be able to stop the outbreak like that. It is escalating We know there are pockets where the case fatality rate is up to 50% in rural areas."

Amnesty International's secretary-general, Irene Khan, bemoaned the cholera epidemic for adding to a long list of suffering. "It is the latest in a whole series of abuses and violations of the people," she said, citing massive evictions of the urban poor from their homes by Mugabe's police and murderous attacks by Zanu PF militias on dissidents and opposition party activists.

Khan asked: "So how much more are these people going to suffer from the Mugabe government?"

"Quite a lot more," is the answer, despite a growing chorus from African and international statesmen for Mugabe to be toppled and perhaps be put on trial for crimes against humanity.

Mugabe has yet to admit political responsibility for turning Zimbabwe, during the near-30 years he has ruled, from one of Africa's most prosperous countries into a failed state. Zimbabwe, which was once a food exporter, is completely laid low. A lethal mix of disease, hunger, unimaginable inflation running officially at more than 231,000,000% (though in reality is many times higher), decayed infrastructure and flight abroad of qualified people has crippled the country. Cholera and anthrax have come on top of an HIV/Aids epidemic that has left Zimbabweans with the lowest life expectancies in the world - 34 years for women and 37 for men.

Mugabe continues to blame all of Zimbabwe's crises on Western sanctions, which he says are aimed at "regime change". However, the limited sanctions imposed in the wake of electoral fraud and state violence are targeted purely at the president and his close associates and consist of travel bans and a freeze on their foreign assets.

"We've gone from some of the best healthcare in Africa to people dying because they are living in their own sewage," said a doctor from Harare's Parirenyatwa Hospital, once one of the finest in Africa, but now closed with burst pipes leaking into its darkened operating theatres. "And the people who run this country act as if it has nothing to do with them or what they've done to this country."

The sheer ruthlessness of Mugabe and his "securocrat" elite is constantly underestimated. It has almost been forgotten that nine months ago Mugabe and Zanu PF actually lost the presidential and parliamentary elections. Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), won the presidential poll, but not with the 50% plus one vote majority necessary to avoid a run-off election in June.

The run-off never took place because police, soldiers and Mugabe's Zanu PF militias launched a crackdown in which hundreds of government opponents were killed. Tsvangirai, rather than see more people killed and maimed, withdrew and Mugabe declared himself re-elected president unopposed.

But this time Zimbabwe had collapsed so absolutely that Mugabe and the top military and police officers who effectively run the country could not reverse the decline. Analysts said Zimbabwe was no longer going downhill but had finally plunged over the cliff. John Robertson, Zimbabwe's leading economist, who has carefully monitored the decline, last week said that since Mugabe declared himself re-elected, the real inflation rate had climbed until in November it reached 1.6 sextillion percent - that's 21 zeros - a number Robertson says has lost any meaning. It is impossible to work with it and where possible Zimbabweans now use US dollars.

In September, South Africa's then president Thabo Mbeki brokered an equivocal power-sharing deal under which Mugabe, despite his March defeat, would remain president and Tsvangirai would become prime minister with ministries shared between Zanu PF and the MDC. Power-sharing looks permanently stalled because Mugabe has refused to cede control of the Police Ministry to the MDC.

This was proven essential last week when 15 police gunmen kidnapped prominent civic leader Jestina Mukoko, director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), from her home in a pre-dawn raid. The ZPP documents human rights abuses.

Mukoko, a former television personality, was taken away still wearing her nightdress. She was not allowed to collect her shoes and spectacles. Zimbabwe's top human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa and Zimbabwe Lawyers For Human Rights have been searching police stations around Harare, but have been unable to find the ZPP leader.

Mtetwa said the high court refused to consider an urgent application concerning Mukoko's disappearance. "This is the second case I have had to deal with recently in which the judiciary played games," said the lawyer. "The other case was when MDC activist Tonderai Ndira known as "Zimbabwe's Steve Biko" was abducted after the March election." Ndira's body was later found decomposing in Parirenyatwa Hospital. His eyes had been gouged and his tongue cut out. There were bullets in his chest.

"If any proof is required to demonstrate that the rule of law has completely broken down in Zimbabwe, this Mukoko's is the case," said Mtetwa.

Following Mukoko's kidnap, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South Africa's Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said Mugabe must either resign or be removed by force. "The world must say, You have been responsible with your cohorts for gross violations and you are going to face indictment in The Hague unless you step down,'" said the archbishop, renowned for his outspoken criticism of the apartheid government in South Africa. "Mugabe has destroyed a wonderful country. A country that used to be a bread basket has now become a basket case."

Political analyst Moeletsi Mbeki, brother of Thabo Mbeki, said it would be simple for South Africa's military, despite its current weakened state, to invade Zimbabwe and overthrow Mugabe.

"Zimbabwe's army, like all modern armies, runs on armoured vehicles and all the oil that goes into Zimbabwe comes through South Africa," he said. "The reality is that if South Africa wanted a conflict, it would force the Zimbabweans military out of their military vehicles just by cutting off the diesel."

However, there is no evidence that South Africa has the will to topple the Mugabe government. And the deep fear being whispered by nearly everyone involved in the international effort to control the cholera epidemic is that once their task is complete Mugabe will claim credit and reinforce his steel grip on Zimbabwe.

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