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Zimbabwe starves as despair grows

A Zimbabwe boy in a parched maize field (Archive picture)
Many Zimbabweans face worsening food shortages

By Peter Biles
BBC News, Zimbabwe

This year's harvest in Zimbabwe has been the worst in the country's modern history.

In Mashonaland West province, some people are trying to survive by eating wild fruit and digging for roots.

If we don't get help now, most of us are going to die. Nearly everyone here is starving
Mashonaland West villager

"It's very, very bad. I've got 12 children and it's hard to find anything to give them," says a local village chief.

"The whole of my village is struggling. No-one has food.

"There's nothing left here. So there's nothing I can do."

Driving deep into Mashonaland West is a reminder that most Zimbabweans live in rural areas.

The area around Karoi - 200km (124 miles) north of the capital, Harare - provides an illustration of the suffering currently being experienced in the countryside.

Farmers are without seeds, fertiliser and fuel. Next year's harvest is already being written off as a disaster as well.

As the political paralysis over the formation of the new power-sharing government continues, people are experiencing severe food shortages brought on by the catastrophic mismanagement of the economy and the virtual destruction of the country's commercial agricultural sector.

School dropouts

Some Zimbabweans get by on one meal a day if they are lucky, but there is a growing sense of desperation.

A person hold the amount of money needed to buy a loaf of bread in Harare in September 2008
Wads of cash are needed to buy what food is available in towns

One consequence is that thousands of children are said to be dropping out of school to look for food.

"In one district, 10,000 children of a population of 120,000 left school in a period of six months," says Rachel Pounds, country director of UK charity Save the Children.

"There's a lot of lost hope. Zimbabweans put up with things that get worse and worse, but you can see the despair in some of the poorer families in the villages.

"It's causing a breakdown of the community when people have to leave in order to find food," she added.

One villager in Mashonaland West pleaded for help before it was "too late".

"If we don't get help now, most of us are going to die. Nearly everyone here is starving."

Map

He showed me three tins of stored maize, but said that with seven children to feed, the supply would only last for a week.

Earlier this month, the UN World Food Programme appealed for $140m (86m) to provide vital relief rations over the next six months.

The UN warned that more than five million people (45% of the population) could need assistance by early 2009.

In the meantime however, non-governmental organisations working in Zimbabwe have been hit hard by the economic collapse of this once prosperous country, and the resulting cash crisis stemming from levels of inflation that are now completely out of control.

But it is not just the rural population which is suffering.

Bizarre and depressing

In the towns and cities, food is also in increasingly short supply.

A walk around a suburban supermarket in Harare is a bizarre and depressing experience.

We are distinctly aware that this is a food crisis that is growing
USAid's Karen Freeman

One store I visited looked as though it was in the final stages of a clearance sale.

Only two of the 19 check-out tills were operating, and most shelves were entirely empty.

There was no milk, cheese, margarine or yoghurt.

Some cabbages, onions and limp bunches of spinach were available, along with a few odd packs of frozen meat.

The aisles intended for household goods such as soap and toilet paper were empty and closed off.

The only fresh-looking food items in the shop were a few loaves of bread, priced this week at Z$30,000 a loaf (about $1).

However, Zimbabweans are only permitted to withdraw Z$ 50,000 a day from the banks.

A boy lifts a tin of water from a hole in Harare in September 2008
Residents of Harare are digging holes to find water

Most people often cannot afford what little food is available.

Only those fortunate enough to have access to foreign currency can circumnavigate the shortages.

"We are distinctly aware that this is a food crisis that is growing," says Karen Freeman, the director of USAid in Zimbabwe.

"The issue of urban vulnerability has never really been felt here before.

"You could go to the store and buy food in the past, but now you have no option.

"There's no food in the store and there's no food on the ground. The crisis now is one where you can neither buy food nor grow food."

This is almost entirely a man-made crisis, created by President Robert Mugabe's government, and his administration stands accused of having done nothing to help.

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