December 23, 2008

A Humanitarian's worst nightmare:Zimbabwe

NZVERE, Zimbabwe — Along a road in Matabeleland, barefoot children stuff their pockets with corn kernels that have blown off a truck as if the brownish bits, good only for animal feed in normal times, were gold coins.

In the dirt lanes of Chitungwiza, the Mugarwes, a family of firewood hawkers, bake a loaf of bread, their only meal, with 11 slices for the six of them. All devour two slices except the youngest, age 2. He gets just one.

And on the tiny farms here in the region of Mashonaland, once a breadbasket for all of southern Africa, destitute villagers pull the shells off wriggling crickets and beetles, then toss what is left in a hot pan. "If you get that, you have a meal," said Standford Nhira, a spectrally thin farmer whose rib cage is etched on his chest and whose socks have collapsed around his sticklike ankles.

The half-starved haunt the once bountiful landscape of Zimbabwe, where a recent United Nations survey found that 7 in 10 people had eaten either nothing or only a single meal the day before.

Still dominated after nearly three decades by their authoritarian president, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabweans are now enduring their seventh straight year of hunger. This largely man-made crisis, occasionally worsened by drought and erratic rains, has been brought on by catastrophic agricultural policies, sweeping economic collapse and a ruling party that has used farmland and food as weapons in its ruthless — and so far successful — quest to hang on to power.

But this year is different. This year, the hunger is much worse.

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