Zimbabwe villagers face starvation

"I’m leaving everything in God’s hands because the child is always ill," she whispers.

Godknows is 2 but looks like a frail 6-month-old, wrists and ankles like twigs, dark hollows under his solemn eyes, sores on his face. He flops in his mother’s arms like an exhausted old man, a victim of Zimbabwe’s silent hunger crisis.

The twin miseries of crop failure and economic collapse have left Zimbabwe’s villages without food. Millions survive on nothing but wild fruit, and many have died.

There are no official statistics. But ask people here in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland South province whether they know anyone who died of hunger recently, and the answer is nearly always yes. Sometimes it’s four or six people in the last couple of weeks. Sometimes they just say "plenty."

"Children are dying out in the bush," one foreign doctor says, on condition of anonymity. "We are all guarded. We have to keep quiet or else we’ll be kicked out" by the government.

The crisis has been exacerbated by President Robert Mugabe’s decision in June to suspend humanitarian aid during the run-up to his one-man presidential runoff. The long-ruling Mugabe, stunned when he won fewer votes than opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the first round in March, accused aid agencies of supporting the opposition and didn’t lift the ban until August. Critics say the regime, which has a history of denying food to opposition areas, was using hunger as a political tool to force people to vote for Mugabe.

In past years, groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Zimbabwean rights group Solidarity Peace Trust have reported that the Grain Marketing Board, the state monopoly responsible for distribution of maize, the nation’s staple, has routinely denied food to opposition supporters. But this year, there is virtually no grain from the board — and in many areas, no humanitarian aid either.

"The food always ends up in the hands of ZANU-PF," says villager Solomon Nsinga, 66, referring to Mugabe’s ruling party. "The guys in charge of distribution are ZANU-PF. This is where the problem is. ZANU-PF gets it first."

(The locations of the Matabeleland South villages have not been disclosed, to protect the identities of villagers, who fear repercussions for speaking out.)

Nsinga says he’s lost count of how many people have died in his village.

"There are plenty of people who have died this year. Plenty people," he says. "They are dying a lot more than usual. This is not normal.

"I feel angry, sad." He sighs and pauses. "I don’t know what to feel."

With the hunger crisis in the rural areas and a cholera epidemic raging in urban areas, former President Carter, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Graca Machel, wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela, tried to visit Zimbabwe a week and a half ago to report on the humanitarian situation. But they were denied visas by Mugabe’s regime.

Nearly 5 million people desperately need food aid, but the hunger is expected to worsen. The World Food Program said recently that there were no funds for food distribution in the months of most severe hunger, January and February, because of a lack of donations. With a funding shortfall of $140 million, the U.N. agency already has cut rations in the food aid being distributed now.

One agency, CARE, reached only half its 500,000 intended aid recipients last month, citing bureaucratic hurdles and the paralysis of Zimbabwe’s currency and banking system.

McDonald Lewanika of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition says U.N. reports don’t reflect the scale of the crisis.

"People have been reduced to hunters and gatherers who have to look for wild food to survive," he says.

He recently traveled to Wedza, a town only 60 miles from the capital, Harare. "You see people fighting with each other and even with wild animals like wart hogs just to take some food back to their children," he says.

In the village where Godknows lives, six people died of hunger in October.