In the streets of Zimbabwe the question is basic: Will the food last until the end of the month? Mothers and other experts agree: It probably won't.
Zimbabwe and five other nations of southern Africa face "probably the biggest famine of our lifetime," according to Clive Calver, president of World Relief. In September Mr. Calver toured the region, where 13 million people are expected to go hungry in coming months. Mr. Calver said the current famine "dwarfs" highly publicized famines in Ethiopia and Sudan of recent years.
Other experts agree that it could be the worst and most widespread run of severe hunger anywhere in the last 60 years. "We have seen a frightening and rapid deterioration in the condition of many children," said Festo Kavishe, UNICEF representative in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital. "We are trying to provide a timely and relevant response to save children from severe damage if not death."
World Food Program figures show the number of underweight children has risen this year from one of every five Zimbabwean children to almost one of four, while measurable evidence of stunted growth has also piled up: from 33 percent to 43 percent. Evidence is apparent in the streets as well. Longer lines form at the bread shops each week. At the same time the bread supply is ever smaller. Few even bother to wait for grain; the maize supply ran out long ago in many areas.
Prolonged drought across southern Africa is the overarching reason for food shortages. In addition to Zimbabwe, countries affected are Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Zambia. But each affected country has its own secondary factors, too. In Malawi, for instance, the AIDS epidemic is compounding food scarcity. Twenty percent of the population is HIV positive. That means field hands are few and orphaned children are many.
At a nursery school in central Malawi supported by World Relief and churches in Wisconsin, Mr. Calver visited with 50 children. Afterwards a local clergyman warned him that due to the food shortage "in three months these children are going to die." A dozen other clergymen told Mr. Calver they have church members surviving on leaves and roots, and burial plots where famine victims are packed five to a grave.
Political strife is making Zimbabwe the epicenter of the famine crisis. Although 6 million Zimbabweans are at risk of starvation, President Robert Mugabe wages a public-policy campaign that is devastating the country's food supply.
Until early September, the Mugabe government banned imports of genetically modified grain. The move eliminated food donations from the United States and other countries at a time when the country's maize crop had completely failed. Some aid workers say the government is requiring them to distribute ground maize (to avoid planting of genetically modified whole grain), a processing step that slows food distribution and makes food spoil more quickly.
Mugabe opponents also believe the president is directing food aid to his own political strongholds, while denying food to growing numbers of areas where the regime is opposed. The state-run Grain Marketing Board has authority over grain imports. Last month the government seized 30 metric tons of food at the South African border, a shipment bought with funds from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the country's leading opposition party. Government officials charged that the agency did not have a permit for the shipment.
"Those supporting the opposition are denied food aid," said Derek Carlsen, a pastor in the eastern city of Mutare. "This is a systematic campaign to do away with the opposition."
Opposition to the president has grown since he began a "fast track" land redistribution program two years ago. The program's stated goal is to take land from rich white commercial farmers and turn it over to landless poor and middle-class black Zimbabweans. In practice, the program amounts to little more than a system of payoffs to Mugabe cronies. Party hacks and militias receive roughly $10 a day to move in as squatters on white-owned farms. Over time the landowners are driven out by violence or intimidation or because squatters interfere with operations. Human Rights Watch charges that Mugabe militias "have carried out serious acts of violence against farm owners, farm workers, and, using occupied farms as bases for attacks, against residents of surrounding areas."
Black farm workers, meanwhile, are excluded from the program. That means that for 5,000 white farmers evicted from their commercial operations, 1.5 million black laborers also lost their jobs. Commercial agriculture, once the bedrock of Zimbabwe's economy, is in collapse. Zimbabwe's dollar has lost nearly half its value. For white farmers not yet targeted for resettlement, land values have plummeted. And most people are hungry.
"This is not a black/white issue. This is not a native/colonial issue. This is not a land issue. This is an issue of Mugabe holding onto power," said Mr. Carlsen.
During this year's election campaign, parliament (led by the president's ZANU-PF party) made it a crime to criticize the president. Mr. Mugabe banned foreign journalists from covering the election. Police crushed opposition rallies, beating and even killing some participants. Leading opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai, who is black, was arrested and charged with treason one day before polls opened.
Mr. Carlsen wrote an open letter to Mr. Mugabe protesting the intimidation. Police promptly took him in for questioning, but he was not arrested. An international observer mission concluded that the election was fraudulent but was powerless to prevent Mr. Mugabe from continuing in command. And, despite threat of sanctions from European nations and the United States, since elections "the situation has only worsened," according to Mr. Carlsen.
Mr. Carlsen is white but leads a congregation that is 80 percent black. Its numbers are dwindling as the food crisis deepens. "The church is holding together with difficulty. The mood is one of depression and despondency-a resignation. We have tried everything and we will never get rid of this man."
Opponents believe the president is thwarting relief efforts because he wants to winnow growing opposition to his rule-even if by starvation. "Will the country be better off without 6 million people? 'Yes,' says the Mugabe regime," according to Mr. Carlsen.
Last month Mr. Carlsen brought his case to the United States, visiting churches and meeting with lawmakers in Washington. Mugabe government forces arrested opposition party leader David Coltart last year when he returned to Zimbabwe after a similar trip to the United States. But Mr. Carlsen, who was scheduled to return on Oct. 9, said he did not anticipate an incident this time. Church leaders, he said, have to draw international attention to the suffering of their people.
World Relief's Mr. Calver says the church has a unique role to play in the food crisis. Churches are prevalent in every town and village, he said, and one-fifth of Zimbabweans say they are evangelical Christians. Last week, Zimbabwe seemed close to giving a go-ahead for food distribution through churches under a program directed by World Relief, which operates under the National Association of Evangelicals. If it wins approval, it will be a departure from government-only aid-and a way to deny Mugabe thugs the power to decide who eats and who does not.
Humanitarian agents like Mr. Calver, however, are careful not to complain about the Mugabe regime while it stands between famine victims and famine relief. "I am not against sanctions over the long term," Mr. Calver told WORLD, "but Mugabe is not going to die. Sanctions won't touch him. There are hundreds who will eat nothing yesterday, today, or tomorrow unless we step in."
The Bush administration is taking a carrot-and-stick approach, talking tough about Mr. Mugabe while at the same time sending food. Congress already approved legislation restricting travel to the United States for government officials and paving the way for sanctions against the Mugabe government. But for now, the United States is supplying 80 percent of the overseas grain-500 metric tons so far-shipped to southern Africa this year. U.S. Agency for International Development head Andrew Natsios warned: "Unless the commercial markets in Zimbabwe are freed of the restrictions the Mugabe government is putting on them, we will not be able to respond adequately to the famine." He told an August press conference, "If I had to list five things that a government could do to turn a drought into a famine, the Mugabe government is doing all of them exponentially."