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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 June, 2004, 08:12 GMT 09:12 UK
Hungry for Zimbabwe's land
By Alastair Leithead
BBC correspondent on the Zimbabwean border

The radio crackles in the small office in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city, as the few white farmers still left on the land keep in touch.

White farmer with his workers
Most white farmers have left the farms since the redistribution programme started

The government's four-year land redistribution programme to undo "colonial wrongs" by giving white-owned land to black Zimbabweans has led to violence and death.

White farmers are still being forced from their land, and the threats from war veterans and squatters are real, farmers say.

"They've told some of my workers that if I don't move out they will kill one of my family, or burn the homesteads down," one farmer explained through tears of anger and frustration.

'Racial thing'

He is bitter and angry after two years of battling to keep his land.

His vegetables supply some government departments and ministers, but this is not enough to protect him from losing his farm without compensation.

"Once you leave your property you'll never go back, because they will take it over completely. Perhaps it is a racial thing - they don't like some of us whites, or all of us whites. They want what we have," he says.

"My mind changes 10 times a day - sometimes I think we should surrender and get the hell out for my family's sake, but then I'm from Scottish descent and have Scottish blood in me - I do not surrender."

Food queue in a Zimbabwe school
Children are dying from starvation
Charity aid worker
Driving around areas that were huge commercial farms, it is obvious the impact the reform has been having.

Small holdings have been set up by the road, but the wicker silos of maize are only a half or a third full - and the harvest has just been collected.

Maize is still being planted and grown, but a farmer explained to me it is the wrong season and is too cold; all the effort will yield nothing.

The plight of the white farmers is a story often told, but the plight of the black farm workers whose livelihoods depended on the commercial farms are the true sufferers.

'Die poor'

"Most of the farm workers are now out of a job and are in such a bad situation now. This is where we got our money to feed our children and get them educated," said a black farm manager, who asked not to be identified.

"There should have been a system of distributing the land, but the way it was done was totally wrong. I worked my whole life thinking things will turn better at the end, but I'll just die poor as I am," he said.

People are already suffering from this lack of food.

Archbishop Pius Ncube
I'm very, very concerned as the government is telling lies
Pius Ncube
Archbishop of Bulawayo
I was taken to a derelict block of flats where a small group of children sang as they waited for lunch, their only meal of the day.

A charity feeding programme has been set up there to help people who are desperately short of food, in a country which used to export maize to the rest of southern Africa.

The project leader did not want her organisation named for fear the government will close them down.

"It shows them up. It shows the rest of the world they are not doing what they are supposed to be doing which is caring for their people. The private agencies are having to come in and do that," she said.

"Children are dying from starvation. We had children fainting and not able to even walk to get food as they were too weak.

"This country has been brought to its knees and it is slowly dying. All we are doing is holding our finger in the dam trying to stop the final disaster - but it's coming."

State television, however, shows happy Zimbabweans reaping record harvests, as the government boasts that there is more maize than the country needs.

The United Nation's World Food Programme was recently banned from completing its crop assessment, but independent surveys say the country has only half of what it needs.

Political weapon

"They have a plan here to starve people to death for political ends - to get everyone aligned to their party at all costs, which is absolutely diabolical and vicious," says the Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, an outspoken critic of the government.

"I'm very, very concerned as the government is telling lies, saying there is enough food and already babies are dying. We have statistics from the city council that 50 to 60 have died already of malnutrition.

"I'm really scared that people will die by their thousands unless this matter of food is opened up."

2000: 4,000 white farmers
2004: 400 left
2003: 5m need food aid
June 2004: 650,000 get food aid

There is evidence the ruling party has been using food aid as a political weapon.

Last month there was a by-election in Lupane north of Bulawayo, which the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) lost, even though it is in the party's heartland.

"The people of Lupane were told if they didn't vote for Zanu-PF, no food aid would be forthcoming. That had the effect of deterring some 5,000 people who would have voted for us, like women with young children or vulnerable groups," said David Coulthard, the MDC's shadow justice minister.

The crops have just been harvested, and there is more maize around now than there will be next March, when the parliamentary elections are due to be held.

The fear is that political manipulation of food aid will be used on a much bigger scale.

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