RW Johnson – Sunday Times January 7, 2007
Suffer the little children is a phrase never far from your mind in today’s Zimbabwe. The horde of painfully thin street children milling around you at traffic lights is almost the least of it: in a population now down to 11m or less there are an estimated 1.3m orphans.
Go to one of the overflowing cemeteries in Bulawayo or Beit Bridge and you are struck by the long lines of tiny graves for babies and toddlers.
A game ranger friend tells me that hyena attacks on humans, previously unheard of, have become increasingly common. “So many babies, not all of them dead, are being dumped in the bush that hyenas have developed a taste for human flesh,” he explains.
Under the weight of the general economic meltdown — the economy has shrunk by 40% since 2000 and is still contracting — the health system has collapsed and a populace now weakened by five consecutive years of near-starvation dies of things which would never have been fatal before. A staggering 42,000 women died in childbirth last year, for example, compared with fewer than 1,000 a decade ago.
A vast human cull is under way in Zimbabwe and the great majority of deaths are a direct result of deliberate government policies. Ignored by the United Nations, it is a genocide perhaps 10 times greater than Darfur’s and more than twice as large as Rwanda’s.
Genocide is not a word one should use hastily but the situation is exactly as described in the UN Convention on Genocide, which defines it as “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”.
Reckoning the death toll is difficult. Had demographic growth continued normally, Zimbabwe’s population would have passed 15m by 2000 and 18m by the end of 2006. But people have fled the country in enormous numbers, with 3m heading for South Africa and an estimated further 1m scattered around the world. This would suggest a current population of 14m. But even the government, which tries to make light of the issue, says that there are only 12m left in Zimbabwe.
Social scientists say that the government’s figures are clearly rigged and too high. Their own population estimates vary between 8m and 11m. But even if one accepted the government figure, 2m people are “missing”, and the real number is probably 3m or more. And all this is happening in what was, until recently, one of Africa’s most prosperous states and a member of the Commonwealth.
When I visited Zimbabwe in 1997 it was still the breadbasket of southern Africa and you could read letters in the local papers from members of the well- educated black middle class complaining, for example, that a floral roundabout was not being properly maintained.
Such innocence abruptly vanished after 2000, when President Robert Mugabe launched farm invasions and a political terror campaign to counter a rising tide of opposition. Since Mugabe forbade entry to foreign journalists, getting in at all became increasingly tricky.
With fuel shortages routine, I drove in at remote border points in a car jammed to the brim with cans of petrol — all I needed was a cigarette lighter to be a pretty effective suicide bomber. In 2002 I watched a half-hour programme about myself on state television: apparently I was the evil genius behind the entire opposition movement.
Thereafter my visits had perforce to be real undercover affairs. Each time the situation was far worse than before and more and more things did not work — this time, even mobile phones did not. Happily, this makes surveillance harder.
In Bulawayo I was approached by a man claiming to seek Mugabe’s violent overthrow and wondering whether I could arrange CIA assistance. Since such talk would normally mean arrest and torture, it was a simple decision to treat him as a secret police agent provocateur.
Bulawayo, capital of Matabeleland, is a virtual ghost town, its wide and gracious streets sparsely peopled even at midday, for emigration and starvation have drained its lifeblood.
Matabeleland, always the centre of opposition to Mugabe, was the first to experience his iron fist in the mid-1980s and has taken more terrible punishment in recent years. Last year, in common with the rest of the country, it was the target of Operation Murambatsvina (Shona for “drive out the filth”) in which the police and army destroyed shanty towns and cracked down on informal traders after Mugabe decreed that they needed to be forcibly “re-ruralised” to regain their peasant roots. All told, some 2m people were affected.
Just what that meant becomes clear from the study carried out by the Reverend Albert Chatindo, whose parish, Killarney, lies on Bulawayo’s northern side. Here 217 families (1,300 people) whose houses had been demolished crowded into his church hall — only for the army to descend upon them again, load them into trucks and dump them in the middle of the bush without food or shelter.
Chatindo spent more than a year tracking them down to discover their fate. A few made it back to Killarney but half are dead, the children from exposure and malnutrition. Many of the adults, especially the men, were so dazed with despair that they ceased to function in a situation where only the most energetic and resourceful had much chance of surviving.
Others tell me in hushed tones of the latest atrocity, Operation Maguta (live well), prompted by a shortfall in maize production since the commercial farms were invaded and destroyed. Under Maguta, the army descends on villagers to compel them to grow maize and sorghum, which they must then sell to the army-run Grain Marketing Board.
In Matabeleland — where maize does not grow well — the army has gone in hard, beating peasants who resist, raping wives and daughters, and chopping down orchards and tearing up vegetable patches in their determination to allow no competing crops. Maguta, with its echoes of Stalin’s campaign against the kulaks (Russia’s relatively wealthy peasants), is already producing more misery, starvation and death.
The only people brave enough to talk to me about what is going on preface everything with “but you can’t quote me”. The only exception is Pius Ncube, the Catholic Archbishop of Matabeleland, whose outspoken critique of the Mugabe regime has earned him death threats.
When I go to his house behind the cathedral he speaks in a flat monotone, without looking at me, almost as if soliloquising or speaking to history. He strikes me as a man driven to the limits of exhaustion both by his punishing workload in the 40C heat and his own deep depression.
Given the terrible death toll, I ask him about the infamous statement by Mugabe’s henchman (and secret police boss), Didymus Mutasa, in 2002, that “we would be better off with only 6m people, with our own who support the liberation struggle. We don’t want all these extra people”.
Is this a master plan, I ask? Is the government trying to reduce the population? Ncube shakes his head slowly. “What is going on is truly evil but I do not think they set out to kill people, it is just that they do not care. Their only concern is to stay in power and enrich themselves and to turn people into terrified, compliant subjects. Some public killing is useful for that, of course. It frightens the rest.
“They have broken the confidence of the people. If you speak out, it is seen as odd, even mad, for there is a brotherhood of silence.
“Only 20% of the people are now above the poverty line. We used to have 30% unemployment but now it is 80% — there are more Zimbabweans working in South Africa than are working in Zimbabwe, and the only thing that keeps us going at all is the flow of remittances back from these migrants,” he says.
“Proper burial has always been important in African society but now many people have a pauper’s burial — no coffins, no service, no relatives present; the bodies are just thrown in a pit like cattle. Our young people cannot think of marriage because they are poverty-stricken. So many are just waiting to die. Some say to me there is no difference between life and death, that life has lost all meaning.
“The women suffer the most. At a certain point the men just walk away but the women are left with their children, watching them starve. We used to have universal schooling but 50% of the children are now out of school because the parents cannot afford even the smallest fees.
“Such children have no future. The only hope lies in the end of Mugabe. Some people pray for him to die but they are very scared. In any meeting of 20 people there will always be two informers.
“Mugabe is a murderer and also a traitor — he is selling the country to the Chinese. It is lonely to be the only one to say that,” Ncube says. “People tell me they pray for me but they are too frightened to speak out themselves. For myself, I shall not stop speaking out. I am perfectly willing to die.”
To move on to Harare I have to take my chances on one of Zimbabwe Airways’s new Chinese MA-60 turboprops, planes that have already given endless trouble. In line, I suppose, with Mugabe’s “look East” policy, all the safety instructions are in Mandarin. The plane seems to have been built for very small and uncomplaining people who like a great deal of noise. After an hour I am virtually deaf and my knees are almost too sore for me to walk.
Harare’s northern suburbs are as beautiful as ever — tall trees, plants and flowers and luxuriant birdlife. The death rate among four-footed wildlife has rivalled that of humans these past few years as land invaders move on to game reserves and massacre the animals. Nobody has been able to kill off the birds.
But death is all around. As I drive through the suburbs I see inert bodies lying on the kerb and in the grass, bodies which have not changed position when I come back half an hour later.
If you stop, you sometimes find people in the last stages of an exhaustion so complete that death seems not a different state but part of the same continuum.
Down near a pond I see a little shelter nestling in the reeds. This turns out to belong to Murambatsvina victims who have managed to walk back to town after being dumped in the bush, and are now trying to hide from the police. Be careful, friends advise: most of those people are sick or dying and have no reason not to rob you. But the walking skeletons I saw were no threat to anyone.
All round Harare people stand thumbing lifts, for the inflation rate of 1,050% means that a bus fare is now much the same as the average daily wage. I give lifts all the time. I meet not a single black person who is not mourning the loss of a relative or friend in the past month but, Harare being the capital, one also sees the luxurious Mercedes and SUVs of the ruling Zanu-PF elite and its business allies.
This group has actually turned hyperinflation to good account, using political power to change money at the official rate and then playing the currency black market to multiply it tenfold.
This tiny political elite still exudes self-righteousness. I notice that none of the big cars ever gives lifts.
While I am in Harare the state media carry the news that Zanu-PF has decided to extend Mugabe’s presidency to 2010 (when he will be 86) and there is talk of a life presidency. In fact they are reporting what Mugabe wanted the news to be: the motion to extend his presidency was blocked.
I see Trudy Stevenson, an MP for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, who has carried out her own survey of Murambatsvina victims in Harare’s Hatcliffe Extension township, work that earned her a brutal assault by Zanu-PF thugs from which she narrowly escaped with her life. Stevenson estimates the death toll there at around a quarter.
I go out to Hatcliffe and talk to some of the survivors. One of them, Philomena Makoni, tells me that her family had a legal lease for their dwelling but this did not prevent the police from tearing it down.
“They came at night, shouting and yelling, made us get out of the house and just levelled it to the ground. “Then we were carted off into the countryside and dropped there. The president had said that people like us had lost our roots and that we must rediscover them.
“My baby that I was nursing died — I had no food and could give her no milk. We buried her in the bush. My other two children are terribly thin and sick. “We walked all the way back to Hatcliffe, it was many miles, but things are much harder even than before. My husband lost his job through being sent away and we have no income.
“We are only alive because the churches give us some food, but I am very frightened for my children. They are no longer in school and they are now begging at the roadside. I cannot see what will become of us.”
Like every black Zimbabwean I met, Makoni would like to leave the country but is in effect trapped by her own poverty and weakness. Despite the horrendous death toll, Archbishop Ncube is right. This is not a genocide like that in Rwanda, where some 900,000 people were butchered in an orgy of tribal hatred. Instead, the regime’s key motive at every stage has simply been its own maintenance of power.
From 2000 on, it destroyed commercial agriculture because it saw the white farmers and their workers as opposition to Mugabe. This led to the first wave of killing, as some 2.25m farm-workers and their families were thrown off the farms, many after being beaten and tortured. An unknown number died. The eviction had the effect of collapsing the economy and cutting the food supply far below subsistence in every subsequent year.
What scarce food there was left, along with seeds, fertiliser, agricultural implements and every other means to life, was made dependent on possession of a Zanu-PF party card. Campaigns of terror followed in 2000 and 2002-03. The population has since been kept in a continuous state of anxiety by a series of military-style “operations”, of which Murambatsvina and Maguta are merely two particularly murderous examples.
Even Operation Sunrise — introducing a new currency last July — had its casualties: many rural folk who failed to surrender their old notes in time had their small savings wiped out.
“These operations remind the population who’s boss,” a Catholic priest told me. “They remind people that they are subjects, not citizens. They keep them off balance, terrified and compliant. “Believe me, Mugabe would win any election he called in these conditions.
Of course, the regime knows it’s hated, that it would never survive a genuinely free election, so it practises continuous and overwhelming intimidation.” All these factors interact.
Some 29% of sexually active Zimbabweans are reckoned to be HIV-positive and the economic collapse has devastated the health system and stopped the distribution of anti-Aids drugs. Studies show that HIV-sufferers with severe malnutrition are six times more likely to die than those who are properly fed and have access to proper medication.
The Murambatsvina and Maguta campaigns — sharply increasing stress and malnutrition — would be large killers, even if people did not die first of exposure or starvation. As it is, with the Murambatsvina affecting 2m people, the resulting death rate may be somewhere between the 50% reported in Bulawayo and 25% in Harare.
Murambatsvina was also about staying in power: Mugabe realised that urban shanty-dwellers were becoming restless and decided on a pre-emptive strike against them. The political toll, plus Aids, in turn, have had a ruinous effect on the rural economy, robbing it of productive labour and thus dramatically reducing food security. The government ignores all this, blames it on Tony Blair or flails against reality with the economics of the madhouse.
Gideon Gono, governor of the central bank, orders in the Green Bombers (young Zanu-PF thugs) to enforce his diktat and bakers are jailed for exceeding the subeconomic bread price set by government. In this — as in the programme for forced re-ruralisation — there are reminders of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge.
World Health Organisation figures show that life expectancy in Zimbabwe, which was 62 in 1990, had by 2004 plummeted to 37 for men and 34 for women. These are by far the worst such figures in the world. Yet Zimbabwe does not even get onto the UN agenda: South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki, who has covered for Mugabe from the beginning, uses his leverage to prevent discussion. How long this can go on is anyone’s guess.
After Rwanda, the UN vowed “never again” but Mugabe — and, to a considerable extent, Mbeki — have already been responsible for far more deaths than Rwanda suffered and the number is fast heading into realms previously explored only by Stalin, Mao and Adolf Eichmann
Last updated 18/01/2007