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Collecting water in Zimbabwe (AP/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

African misery

Africa | Conditions in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo continue to deteriorate, as aid workers valiantly try to help

After weeks of denying a spiraling health crisis in languishing Zimbabwe, government officials in the African nation declared a state of emergency over a cholera outbreak that has killed at least 500 people since August and threatens thousands more.

At least another 12,000 Zimbabweans have contracted the disease, though local doctors say the number of deaths and infections are likely much higher. Officials in the capital city of Harare cut the city's water supply in November, saying the National Water Authority ran out of purifying chemicals and feared spreading cholera through the water.

Living conditions in Zimbabwe continue to deteriorate nine months after President Robert Mugabe refused to accept defeat in national elections and ongoing attempts to form a unity government have floundered. A devastating economic collapse has produced severe food shortages and crumbling infrastructure: Hungry citizens stand in long lines for meager food provisions, and officials in Harare have halted basic services like regular electricity and trash collection.

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The suffering worsened in November when Harare's two hospitals closed: Doctors said they had no supplies or medicines to treat patients. Frank Donaghue, CEO of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a Massachusetts-based humanitarian group, visited one of the hospitals two months before it closed. From a cell phone in Kenya, Donaghue described the scene: "The nurses told me, 'We haven't had a basic antibiotic in the hospital in months.'" Other nurses told Donaghue they hadn't eaten in days, and the hospital lacked food for patients.

Lack of medicines and supplies means scarce treatment for critical needs, including patients facing HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, and dangerous childbirth. Government officials have allowed a few makeshift clinics set up by groups like the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders, but the needs outstrip the supply. After declaring a state of emergency over the cholera epidemic, Zimbabwean officials asked for more outside help, though it wasn't immediately clear how quickly they would act to facilitate aid groups.

Donaghue hopes to enter Zimbabwe by Christmas to assist local physicians. The doctors send daily email messages to Donaghue, describing an increasingly dire situation, and warning that hundreds more will die without intervention. Jonathan Hutson, spokesman for PHR, hopes the international community will exert pressure on Mugabe to allow basic services and aid to flow into the country.

"This is not just a political issue, but a moral issue that demands an international response," said Hutson. "People are desperately crying for our help."

African nations have been slow to criticize Mugabe's regime during power-sharing talks with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Kenyan Prime Minster Raila Odinga broke that silence this week, saying, "It's time for African governments to push him [Mugabe] out of power."

Odinga told the BBC that open-ended talks over a unity government between Mugabe and the opposition party are futile: "Powers-sharing is dead in Zimbabwe and will not work with a dictator who does not really believe in power sharing."

The growing health crisis among miserable Zimbabweans may draw the attention and pressure Mugabe has tried to avoid. "The Mugabe regime does not want the world to understand the full truth and the brutal toll of his regime on a systemic level," said PHR's Hutson.

In the nearby Democratic Republic of Congo, thousands of citizens are suffering the brutal toll of a fresh round of rebel fighting that has driven some 250,000 from their homes since August. The displaced Congolese huddle in jungles and makeshift displacement camps, some finding shelter under banana leaves as the rainy season begins. As women and children seek food and clean water, they try to avoid the armed soldiers perpetrating widespread rape and kidnapping in a worsening terror campaign.

One week ahead of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay is warning the United Nations that conditions in the Congo are dire. Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, reported "a steady deterioration" of human rights in the Congo, including "summary executions, kidnappings, and widespread looting." Pillay also described "unparalleled violence against women" and "forced recruitment of child soldiers."

World Vision, a U.S.-based Christian relief agency, visited two displacement camps and reported acute need for shelter, food, and water. The organization plans to deliver as many as 25,000 family relief kits-including items like blankets, clothing, and soap-as security conditions allow.

World Vision aid worker Michelle Rice said the group heard widespread reports of worsening violence against women. "We learned of one shocking case in which armed men raped three women from the same family-an elderly grandmother, her daughter, and her granddaughter."

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