Zimbabwe families forced to beg for scraps
By Sue Lloyd-Roberts
Last Updated: 2:29am BST 13/09/2007
Pathetic, wizened babies lay in the arms of mothers who turned away, almost guiltily, as I approached.
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"It's just that I can't find the food that will make my baby grow", said the mother of an 18-month-old boy who weighed just 11lb (5kg).
A severely malnourished child at a mission hospital in Harare
Another child howled in pain as she sat on her mother's lap. Her skin was raw and pink as if she had been severely burned. The ward sister explained: "It is the most extreme form of kwashioka - vitamin deficiency." The child was so malnourished that she was literally losing her hair and skin.
When I visited the same mission hospital in Zimbabwe two years ago, there were as many children and mothers in the paediatric ward. But mothers were spooning the staple, mealie meal, and gravy into the mouths of their malnourished children.
In a country that was already in a state of economic collapse, there was still something positive and hopeful in their actions and in the bustle of staff. This time, the same ward was filled with hopelessness and despair.
"We do not have space for them all and there are hundreds more in the rural areas," said Sister Liliana. "The cases of malnutrition are growing but because of transport problems and because of financial problems, their mothers cannot get here and, most certainly, those children will die."
According to the World Health Organisation, Zimbabwe now has the world's lowest life expectancy - 37 years for a man, 34 for a woman.
Funerals are about the only growth industry. Drive past the main cemetery in the capital Harare and you see several groups of people singing hymns and saying prayers around tiny, freshly dug graves.
Joe, Solomon and Patience are the names of just three of the recently buried children here. Mourners said the cemetery had doubled in size in the past eight years, since President Robert Mugabe began his deliberate policy of destroying his country and his people.
The survivors of operation "Clean Out the Filth", when bulldozers and soldiers destroyed thousands of homes in Zimbabwe's towns two years ago, can be found today living in corrugated huts, crowded 10 to a room, in the townships. Mr Mugabe's critics say the operation was specifically targeted at supporters of the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change.
In Harare, the MDC city council was replaced by government appointees and the infrastructure has been allowed to collapse.
Raw sewage flows out on to the ground, close to where people have dug makeshift boreholes to find water. Hospitals, already dealing with the Aids epidemic and malnutrition, are preparing themselves for a further catastrophe. The first deaths from cholera have already been reported.
"The problem," said one doctor, "is that people's immune systems are already so weakened by hunger they can't resist the horrors that the government is throwing at them."
The food queues start at dawn and wind around several blocks of the city. After five hours of queues on one day during my visit, there were rumours that bread had arrived at a city bakery. The crowd surged forward, trying to get through the metal gates.
Soldiers and police used batons to fight them back. "We are a patient, reasonable people," said one man in the queue with three children to feed at home.
"But unless they bring us bread, sugar, mealie meal soon, there will be food riots in the cities of Zimbabwe."
For now, one of the most patient, well educated and resourceful people in Africa are devising ever more ingenious coping strategies.
Twenty per cent of the city of Harare has been dug up to make way for random plots of vegetables. People do not leave home without wheeling barrows or carrying buckets and bags, always on the look-out for an unexpected delivery. You see the desperate sifting through rubbish skips for scraps of food.
And the elderly, black and white, are begging on street corners.The white middle class such as John, a businessman in Harare, admit that their suffering is far less than the unemployed blacks.
"I drive to South Africa once a month to stock up with groceries and to keep sane," he said. "I use solar panels when the electricity cuts out and use swimming pool water for the vegetables and to flush the loos.
"We survive. But you are always living on the edge in Zimbabwe today. We are always ready for new persecution by Mugabe.
"In the past, he has attacked the trade unionists, then it was the gays and lesbians. Then it was the farmers, political activists, social activists, then it was the urban poor.
"Just recently it's been the remnants of the middle classes who've had their businesses looted. We never know who he's going to go for next. It could well be white urban houses that he would then redistribute to his followers."
The Institute of Migration estimates that four million people, more than a quarter of the population, have already left the country - three million to South Africa. "I had no choice," one refugee said as she got off the bus in Johannesburg. "There is no food. My children are starving. Robert Mugabe is killing us".