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Story Publication logo February 1, 2009

Now the Terror Has Returned


Media file: zimbabwe.jpg

In almost three decades of rule, Robert Mugabe's evolution from liberator to tyrant led Zimbabwe...


How much lower can Zimbabwe sink? Chronic food shortages, hyperinflation, a cholera epidemic, people abducted for speaking out against President Robert Mugabe's regime -- all this is the stuff of daily life for ordinary Zimbabweans, as related here by a journalist in Harare, the capital. She reports for PBS's Frontline/World, with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Her name is withheld for her safety.

Dec. 5, 2008 -- Disappeared

The shrill ring of my phone awakens me. Sleep does not come easily these days. I'd like to turn off my mobile at night, but what if my son should call? I miss him but cannot risk living near him. My profession makes me a target.

I pick up the phone. It's a colleague, and she has bad news. Jestina Mukoko, a human rights activist, is missing. She was abducted from her home not far from Harare two days ago, my colleague tells me. Her teenage son watched as the armed intruders shoved her, barefoot and still in her pajamas, into a car.

Mukoko, one of the few women to have made it in the Zimbabwean media, was a role model for me during my college days. She worked for the country's only television station, run by the state-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corp. When Mugabe tightened his grip, she quit her job as a newscaster, ultimately joining a human rights organization called the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP). Mukoko and the ZPP, with their countrywide network of secret volunteers who provide information about politically motivated violence, are invaluable to what is left of our independent press.

Abductions such as Mukoko's were common leading up to the run-off election last June. Facing certain defeat in a fair fight, Mugabe turned to violence. At least 86 supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition party were killed and 10,000 were injured, according to party leader Morgan Tsvangirai. I suspect that those numbers are actually much higher. The attacks abated in September, when Mugabe and the MDC reached a tentative settlement. But he quickly went back on his word. Now the terror has returned. Download a PDF of this dispatch

Dec. 20 -- The Billion-Dollar Bread Line

The government recently introduced a 10-billion-dollar bill, but with inflation at 89.7 sextillion percent, it soon will barely buy a loaf of bread. So at 4 a.m. I set off for the bank, where my $100 billion monthly salary has just been deposited. I even feel a little bit happy. I will be the first person to arrive, I think to myself. After withdrawing my money, I will rush to the supermarket to buy whatever I can find before the cash loses its value.

When I reach the bank, people are already waiting. The security guard gives me a number: I'm 105th in line. It's not long before the sun comes up, and the temperature rises. There are whispers that the bank doesn't have enough cash to go around. Everything is in short supply these days -- milk, bread, meat, salt, sugar, gas, even toilet paper.

At 5:45 p.m., after 13 hours in line, it's my turn. But the bank is giving only $10 billion to each customer. I dash to the supermarket. The $10 billion buys one loaf of bread. I could have bought two that morning.

Afraid that one of the thousands of starving people will beg for my loaf or that a neighbor will see it, I wrap it in old newspaper. I can't believe my own tightfistedness. But my husband and I have gone without bread for a week.

Dec. 24 -- Mukoko Surfaces

A source phones me. The government has produced Mukoko. I rush to the courtroom, but the hearing is already in progress, so I wait outside. When the doors open, Mukoko is escorted out. She walks with a limp but holds up her head. Beneath a wig, her face is swollen. Her usual blazing expression is gone, replaced by blankness and fear. I suspect that she has been tortured. I pull my cap over my eyes and cry.

The judge orders that Mukoko be seen by a doctor before any further court proceedings. But she is whisked away -- not to a hospital but to the notorious Chikurubi maximum security prison. The same government that for three weeks had denied any knowledge of her abduction now hauls her into court and charges her with plotting to overthrow Mugabe.

Dec. 31 -- Disease and Denial

On a bleak New Year's Eve, I think about my father's brother, who succumbed last month to cholera. Not long after his death, I attended a government news conference on the disease that the World Health Organization estimates has killed more than 1,500 and sickened nearly 30,000 since August. Mugabe's Information Minister, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu called the epidemic "a calculated, racist attack on Zimbabwe by the unrepentant former [British] colonial power, which has enlisted support from its American and Western allies so that they can invade the country." Part of me wanted to burst out laughing. But I, too, worry about contracting the disease. I've had no water at my house for more than three months. Like many of my neighbors, I have dug a shallow well in my backyard. None of us can afford to purify the water.

Jan. 20, 2009 -- A Day for Hope

Only 20 days into the new year, and what a hard one it has been so far. Last week the Reserve Bank issued yet another bill, worth $100 trillion, to cope with inflation. The number of cholera victims is approaching 3,000. Mukoko is still in prison. Nonetheless, today is a day for hope. For many Zimbabweans, the inauguration of Barack Obama, whom they consider a fellow African, promises a brighter future.

As I prepare to watch the ceremony on my little television, I cringe at the sound of an unexpected knock. But it's just my neighbor Mai Kudzi. "My sister, I have come so that we may witness this together," she says.

Ten minutes before the inauguration is to begin, we're in darkness. We wonder whether Mugabe has cut off the electricity because he fears that Obama will call on him to relinquish power.

Mai Kudzi and I sit with our heads tilted toward my crackling battery-operated radio, the dial set to an independent station that operates illegally, and strain to hear Obama take the oath of office. As soon as he finishes his speech, we rejoice and dance in the dark. We have not had anything to be happy about in a long time. Help is coming, Mai Kudzi says.

Later, alone, I eat my supper of dry bread. My husband is on a trip to neighboring Mozambique. We have run out of rice. At least we can still afford to buy more.

Jan. 27 -- More Bad News

For the first time in six months, I enjoy a hot shower with running water -- something my son may never experience. I am in South Africa for another summit on Zimbabwe. This time, the Southern African Development Community is trying to hammer out a power-sharing agreement between Mugabe and the opposition. Last night my phone kept ringing until I finally turned it off. Everyone at home wants to know the outcome of the talks.

The news is not good. In the wee hours of the morning, negotiators emerge with conflicting statements: Some say that an agreement has been reached, others claim the opposite. The confusion means that Mugabe is still in charge. I wonder how much longer we can hold on.

Jan. 30 -- Still Waiting for Help

It's late afternoon. I just got the news: The opposition has agreed to join Mugabe's government, with Tsvangirai to become prime minister within weeks. From South Africa I watch on television as people gather outside the MDC's headquarters in Harare, cheering at the announcement. The police are too stunned to make any arrests. For the crowd, today is another day for hope.

But like many Zimbabweans, I find it hard to celebrate. Mugabe remains powerful under the new government, still controlling the state coffers, the military, the police and the media. I sigh as I think of the problems ahead. The United Nations estimates that 7 million Zimbabweans -- as much as 80 percent of the population -- need food aid. The cholera death count creeps ever higher. Yesterday the government announced that citizens may do business in the U.S. dollar, the British pound, the South African rand and even the Botswanan pula, effectively abandoning the worthless Zimbabwean currency and making life even more confusing. As I wait at the airport for my flight home, the light at the end of the tunnel seems so far away.

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