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Zimbabwe: Tracking the descent

NewsNotes, January-February 2009

A power-sharing deal brokered by South African President Thabo Mbeki, appointed as negotiator by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and signed in September was heralded as a new dawn for Zimbabwe. Instead, it has become a marker for Zimbabwe’s rapid descent into collapse. This account of deepening trouble is from a chronology prepared by the Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN, 12/11/08).

Since September, an already disastrous humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe has worsened.  Word has spread around the world of water shortages and sanitation failures; of acute food shortages (Save the Children warned that many children were being forced to eat poisonous roots and rats to stave off hunger); of dreaded diseases including anthrax and especially cholera spreading within and beyond Zimbabwe’s borders; of a failed health care system unable to obtain basic medicines or needed supplies; of basic education ground to a halt.

By early November the political situation remained at an impasse and Human Rights Watch reported that 163 people had been killed in political violence. President Robert Mugabe announced he would form a new government, which the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Morgan Tsvangirai, refused to join. A new wave of attacks was launched on the MDC as ZANU-PF torture camps were set up around the country. The MDC officially withdrew from the power-sharing deal, but on November 20, Zimbabwe announced a new round of talks.

Two days later, the Elders -- former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, human rights advocate Graça Machel -- part of a group of distinguished people working for peace and human rights, were banned from entering Zimbabwe on a humanitarian mission. Unable to travel into Zimbabwe itself, they held meetings over three days in South Africa.

On the basis of those discussions, the Elders expressed their view that there is a major underreported humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe – and that conditions are deteriorating at an alarming rate. What also became clear to the Elders was that “Zimbabwe’s knowledge base and infrastructure are recoverable; the crisis can be turned around with sound political leadership, economic reform and sufficient regional and international support.”

Meanwhile, warnings of a cholera catastrophe began to spread. Many with cholera were forced across the border into South Africa because medical facilities in Zimbabwe were unable to cope. Anthrax claimed the lives of villagers and about 200 livestock north of Bulawayo. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warned of an alarming spread of cholera throughout the region; over 9,000 were infected in Zimbabwe and numbers were rising in the neighboring countries of South Africa and Botswana. On December 3, the Limpopo River, on the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe, tested positive for cholera. The UN reported 565 cholera deaths and over 12,000 infected in Zimbabwe and the cholera epidemic was expected to worsen as the rainy season began. Finally, on December 4, the Zimbabwean government announced a national emergency and appealed to the international community for aid to help tackle the epidemic. UNICEF announced it would need US$17.5 million to tackle the cholera epidemic.
By December 10, the number of cholera deaths in Zimbabwe had risen to 746, with 15,572 people infected.

But the political drama went on. In November Gideon Gono was appointed for another five-year term as governor of Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank. Botswana closed its embassy in Harare and the European Union extended the travel ban to 11 more officials and put pressure on Mugabe to step down.

Human rights violations regained international attention with the abduction of activist and journalist Jestina Mukoko, director of Zimbabwe Peace Project. Mukoko was taken at gunpoint from her home in Norton, about 20 miles north of Harare, in a pre-dawn raid by 15 men in plain clothes. Weeks earlier, a group of 15 MDC activists were taken from their homes 60 miles north of Harare -- they have not been heard from since -- and Tsvangirai’s director of security, Chris Dlamini, was seized from his home by a group of men, believed by many to be police out of uniform. Gandhi Mudzingwa, former personal assistant to Tsvangirai, was abducted a few days after Mukoko. Mudzingwa’s car was forced off the road and he was taken to a waiting vehicle by nine men, bringing to almost 30 the number of MDC supporters and civil society activists abducted and missing in recent weeks.

Faith in action:

Write to your member of Congress encouraging his or her support for the actions recommended by the Elders, including
• Immediately provide $140 million to the World Food Program (WFP) to maintain its planned food assistance program in the coming months;
• Fund the Consolidated Appeal of $550 million launched by 35 humanitarian agencies operating in Zimbabwe to address urgent needs;
• Consider offering special assistance to medical and teaching staff to return to work so that services can be resumed;
• Encourage WFP and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to explore a “Home-Grown Help” initiative to provide seed and fertilizer to farmers for the 2009-10 growing season and potentially sell produce to WFP programs;
• Provide sufficient funding for the implementation of a Zimbabwe-led comprehensive development program as soon as a power-sharing government is in place and macro-economic policy changes are underway.

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