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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 September 2007, 09:31 GMT 10:31 UK
Inside Mugabe's Zimbabwe
By Sue Lloyd-Roberts
World Affairs Correspondent, BBC News

As dawn breaks over Harare, people start forming long, silent queues that wind around entire blocks of the city. One in five adults has no job and so there is all the time in the world to wait.


There has been no cooking oil or the African staple - mealie meal - in the city for days but there is a rumour that bread could be arriving in the city today. Five hours later, they are still waiting.

Policemen and soldiers arrive, apparently helpfully supervising the queue.

"They just pretend," explains James, who waits in the queue with five children back at home to feed, “they get the first news if a lorry is on its way with supplies and they jump to the top of the queue and loot the food."

Zimbabwe, once one of the richest countries in Africa, now boasts the world's fastest shrinking economy.

Aids and cholera

People are starving. The evidence is in the hospitals where tiny, wizened babies lie dying in their cots while their mothers look on helplessly.

A mother cradles a child who is losing her hair and her skin - a sign of the most advanced form of Kwashioka, or, vitamin deficiency.

Many of the children have contracted Aids from their mothers and, with their bodies further weakened by malnutrition; they are unlikely to leave the hospital alive.

Drive out to the townships and you see why doctors are bracing themselves for even worse. Two years ago, Robert Mugabe ordered the destruction of thousands of homes.

Now the survivors live crowded into the remaining buildings or in makeshift, corrugated huts. There is no electricity or fresh running water and sewage spews out of the dilapidated buildings.

Desperate for drinking water, residents have dug makeshift wells in the surrounding area. The first cholera deaths were reported last week.

Food queue
People queue for hours for food which may never arrive

"I think an outbreak of cholera in this situation, with the lack of resources and medical staffing, could be potentially dangerous and lead to a very high mortality particularly in vulnerable groups, such as those suffering from HIV Aids, children and the elderly," said one paediatrician in Harare.

Fleeing the country

The homes Mugabe destroyed in the frenzy of urban destruction called "Clean Out the Filth" belonged to supporters of the opposition, the MDC, the Movement for Democratic Change, whose traditional strongholds have been in the cities and towns.

"Robert Mugabe has declared war on us, the people who live in the towns. He wants to drive us out. He is preparing for next year's elections," said a man with a wheelbarrow piled high with plastic water containers.

Thousands of Zimbabweans are fleeing the country every week and there are an estimated three million now living in South Africa.

A week's pay will only buy one bag of mealie meal and one litre of cooking oil
Liliana, teacher

"The government doesn't have a problem with Zimbabweans getting out people can get passports easily," said Tendai Biti, general secretary of the opposition party, the MDC.

"It is a classic case of Robert Mugabe having his cake and eating it. These people are sending back massive remittances and thus keeping the remnants of the Zimbabwean economy alive. Robert Mugabe is a very, very happy dictator," said Mr Biti.

Those who do not have the money for the journey and who have to duck through the bush and cross the Limpopo River to get to South Africa, face far greater risks.

Gangs wait on either side of the river for the groups of desperate refugees.

"They have guns and knives," one 19 year-old-girl tells me.

"There were 15 boys and five girls in our group. They killed one boy when he refused to give them his shoes. They raped all the girls. What could I do? I did nothing. I wanted to get out of Zimbabwe in order to survive."

Thousands of Zimbabweans flee every week
Thousands who flee end up as refugees in Johannesburg
Among the refugees, I found teachers still on the payroll in Zimbabwe, who come to the country just for a few weeks to make enough money to send back home.

"Our salaries are so low," said Liliana, "that a week's pay will only buy one bag of mealie meal and one litre of cooking oil. There is no milk and no meat."

Giving up hope

Another teacher tells me she is working as a prostitute in the red light district of Johannesburg.

"What else can I do? My husband is dead and I have three children back home to feed," she said.

It is a situation that suits the governments on both sides. Among the refugees, there are people with professional, technical and farming skills - just the kind of people who are needed by South Africa's growing economy.

There is no hope in the country so long as Robert Mugabe is alive
Zimbabweans have long since given up hope that the South African leader, Thabo Mbeki, will put pressure on his old friend, Robert Mugabe, to reform.

Before leaving the country, I call on James whom I met while queuing for bread on the first day of my stay in Zimbabwe.

Six days later, he is there again.

"I have queued for five hours", he said, "and have got nothing."

I follow him back home, shoulders stooped, dragging his legs wearily, dreading having to tell his family that he has again returned home empty handed.

As he leans over his baby daughter to say good night, he said: "There is no hope in the country so long as Robert Mugabe is alive. There is nothing here. He is killing us."

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