What is the secret so horrible that President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe does not want the world to see? Why did he refuse visas for Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, and Graca Machel of The Elders, a group of eminent statesmen, last fall? Why did Mugabe’s secret police keep a team of investigators from Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) under surveillance in the week before Christmas last year—and try to arrest them before they could tell their story to the world?
In a report titled HEALTH IN RUINS: A Man-Made Disaster in Zimbabwe, Physicians for Human Rights revealed Mugabe’s dark secret this morning at a press conference in Johannesburg, South Africa: President Mugabe’s regime is committing crimes against humanity. Desmond Tutu, the retired Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, said in a statement that the PHR report: “documents that the people of Zimbabwe are being denied the most basic of life’s necessities—access to health care, food, clean water, and even life itself. The world must take action against the Mugabe regime for these crimes against humanity.”
Crimes Against Humanity
…Robert Mugabe [has attempted] to conceal the appalling situation of his country’s people and to prevent the world from knowing how his government’s malignant policies have led to the destruction of infrastructure, widespread disease, torture, and death.
The Cholera Epidemic is a Result of Human Rights Violations
The Mugabe regime intentionally suppressed initial reports of the cholera epidemic and has since denied or underplayed its gravity.
Health Care Neither Accessible Nor Affordable
…The dollarization of the economy since November 2008 has led to an economic apartheid in health care access. Since then, only a tiny elite with substantial foreign currency holdings can be said to have any real access to health care.
Human Rights and Torture
…A political environment marked by partisan violence, arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention, torture, and extrajudicial killings have continued unabated since the March 2008 parliamentary and presidential elections.
Seizure of Farmland by the Ruling Elite
Under the guise of land redistribution to benefit landless black Zimbabweans, Mugabe instead awarded many of these once-productive farms to government ministers…. The land seizure led to sharp falls in agricultural production…and increased food insecurity for millions.
The Collapse of Democracy, the Economy and Health Care
The health crisis in Zimbabwe is a direct outcome of the violation of a number of human rights, including the right to participate in government and in free elections and the right to a standard of living adequate for one’s health and well being, including food, medical care, and necessary social services.
PHR found that the Mugabe government has withheld food aid, seed, and fertilizer to rural provinces in order to starve political opponents; that the regime nationalized and then withheld routine support for municipal water and sewer systems from cities that elected political opponents; that the health care infrastructure and the economy itself is nearing utter collapse; corruption is the rule not the exception; and that the regime brutally silences critics to cover its crimes, profound corruption and incompetence (see report here).
“While we were there,” Frank Donaghue, CEO of Physicians for Human Rights told Religion Dispatches, “human rights activists were imprisoned and tortured.”
“People think that the most compelling problem is cholera,” he said (and indeed, the cholera outbreak has been widely reported). But, adds Donaghue, it is also a symptom of more profound underlying problems. “The issue is the collapse of the government, the economy, and the health system” he said. “Human waste is running down the streets. Kids are playing in it. The sewage system is in such bad repair that you get sewage in tap water.” PHR has issued the video, below, depicting how the disaster even affects the nation’s capital city: “The Marimba River which feeds Lake Chivero, Harare’s main water supply, is so filled with [human] excrement that plant growth covers its surface.”
“We are just waiting to die”
The tale of how PHR brought the story out for all the world to see, is also one of heroism on the part of dedicated health care workers in Zimbabwe who are desperate to get their story out to a world that may be unready to hear it. PHR’s veteran international health and disaster relief professionals who visited last month, disclose a horror and human disaster on a scale they have never before seen.
Dr. Chris Beyrer, Professor of Epidemiology and International Health at Johns Hopkins University told Religion Dispatches that the scale of human suffering and death may be worse than Pol Pot’s Cambodia in the 1970s, and that regional and international inaction is analogous to the international community’s failure to stop the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s. He estimates that about half of the population of Zimbabwe is either dead or has fled to neighboring countries. “I have been at this for a long time,” he said, his world-weary voice seeking to convey the urgency of the accelerating Zimbabwean disaster. “I’ve never seen so total a collapse of a health system.”
The origins of the PHR investigation extend back to last summer when Frank Donaghue visited to train medical students in human rights activism. Circumstances were grim even then. In November when he checked back in to see how things were going, his contact implored PHR to come right away: “We are just waiting to die.” Donaghue scrounged for funds, quickly assembled a team of public health investigators, and headed to Zimbabwe in the week before Christmas.
“There are brave people who need our help,” he said. “Nobody is telling the real story about a country that is a wasteland.” Donaghue, a former Catholic and current Episcopal priest, carries his vocation with him into his human rights work. “Telling stories is what it’s about,” he said. “It’s what the gospel is about.”
“The only thing we can do is tell their story,” he said of his beleaguered Zimbabwean colleagues. “It is up to others to care.”
“You are going to be cut like a goat from head to toe”
After the PHR team completed its assessment, Donaghue took a group of Zimbabwean medical students to an all-you-can-eat buffet. They ate well. “These medical students are skinny,” he said. “But if the students ask for food, they are beaten with clubs. They can’t finish their medical school because there is no paper. Few books. No lights.” For many, there is no longer even any school. The Medical School of the University of Zimbabwe in Harare closed on November 18. The next day, 1000 health workers tried to march to the Ministry of Health to protest the ongoing collapse of the health system and to demand food and clean water—but they were quickly dispersed by heavily armed, helmeted riot police (see cell phone photo, top).
“If they catch you,” one student matter of factly told Donaghue at the buffet, “you are going to be cut like a goat from head to toe.” The students all knew people who had been beaten or tortured by Mugabe’s agents. Donaghue met one receiving treatment in a hospital, most of which are now closed, partly because even when staff are paid, “it costs more to travel to work to pick up the paycheck than the check is worth,” Donaghue said.
As Donaghue was preparing to depart for the airport, he received a chilling phone call. Team member and PHR public health consultant, Richard Sollom, said that he had received a tip: the CIO (the Zimbabwean secret police), were waiting for them at airport security. “They knew our itinerary,” Donaghue said. “They knew every restaurant we ate in.” He was told “they are going to arrest you and you have to get out of here.” A car was quickly arranged to pick them up and whisk them out of the country. The US Embassy also advised them to get out fast. In fact, according to the Zimbabwe Times, the CIO claimed to have already arrested them as spies:
HARARE—State agents arrested four Britons and an American in Harare on Monday claiming they were spies who entered Zimbabwe more than a week ago allegedly to finance activities aimed at overthrowing President Robert Mugabe’s government.
The four, who according to a ZBC news bulletin, entered the country on December 13, allegedly claimed to be human rights doctors on a mission to assess the health situation in Zimbabwe.
In response, the day before Christmas PHR issued a statement denouncing “false reports from Zimbabwe’s state-controlled broadcaster, ZBC News.”
With only ten or fifteen minutes to flee, the PHR team had to burn notes, destroy PHR-identifying materials including credit cards, as well as computer hard drives and Blackberries with lists of contacts. Fortunately, the team had other means of getting their findings out of the country as the basis for their report. And the other PHR team members, Dr. Beyrer and Dr. David Sanders (a native of Zimbabwe who heads of the School of Public Health at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa), had already quietly departed before the CIO closed in.
“They were clearly in hot pursuit,” Donaghue said. “We escaped due to the good graces of people who moved us from one safe house to the next.” Eventually, Donaghue and Sollom were able to cross the northern frontier into Zambia and reach the international airport at Lusaka. Their driver, who had taken an enormous risk to get them to Zambia, was unsure about the prospects of getting back home without getting arrested. But the urgency of PHR getting their story to the world was that important (PHR later learned that the driver did make it home safely).
Donaghue and Beyrer co-authored an op-ed featured in last Thursday’s Washington Post describing the origins of the cholera epidemic that the World Health Organization says has claimed the lives of more than 1,700 people since the outbreak began in August of 2008:
Mugabe’s ZANU-PF regime nationalized municipal water supplies in 2006 after the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Morgan Tsvangirai, controlled some 80 percent of seats nationwide following successes in municipal elections. Mugabe’s government seized the water authorities to deny the MDC revenue and to control the lucrative contracts for repair of the broken system. The result was mayhem: Graft and corruption further undermined repairs, water went untreated and raw sewage was pumped into Harare’s main reservoir. Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, was spared this fate. Mugabe’s regime had calculated that taking over the water authority there would drive residents to vote for the MDC. Tellingly, Bulawayo suffered no cholera deaths last week, while Harare’s case fatality rate for the same week was 19 percent, some 20 times higher than the 1 percent fatality rate the World Health Organization estimates for cholera when proper treatment is available.
International agencies estimate that five million people are in need of immediate food aid. And that five million or more are refugees in neighboring countries, mostly South Africa.
While the cholera epidemic is making news, PHR reports that at least 400 Zimbabweans die each day of HIV/AIDS. “Bodies are being stacked like logs” in the morgue in Harare, physicians told Donaghue. In the absence of power for refrigeration, there is no way to safely store any of them and with few hospitals open and medical care otherwise scarce, many are buried at home. Cholera and other deaths go unreported. The government does not want to hear about it.
There is no end in sight to the HIV/AIDS crisis: the health system is collapsing and some 205,000 people are said to be on anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs that control the disease, but 800,000 Zimbabweans are thought to require therapy, or will require it in the coming months and years. Malnutrition makes ARVs less effective.
Murder by starvation is “slower than a machete”
“I sat in a room with 15 HIV-positive women who were starving,” Donaghue said. “Maybe its slower than a machete,” he said referring to the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, “but its a pretty slow and painful death. These are women who are waiting to die. Its murder.”
The stories go on in this way.
Beyrer tells of meeting the rector of a mission hospital who was telling him about the problem of malnutrition at the hospital. “You mean the patients?” Beyrer asked. “No,” the rector replied, “the nurses.” Beyrer learned that food was chronically short and that at the time of his visit, the staff nurses had not eaten for two days.
“I saw a young boy who weighed seven pounds; skin is falling off of his body,” Donaghue said. “He lives in a region where food security has been denied for years. No support. No grain. Regional hospitals go unstaffed. I call that murder.”
Beyrer contrasts his experience at the main hospital of Harare with that of other African capitals. “Hospitals are usually one of the busiest places in town. There are vendors. Families with family members who are patients camp out on the grounds. This is Africa. The place is throbbing with life.” But he describes the “breath-taking experience” of facing an abandoned building “with the doors chained shut, windows broken, and trash blowing in the breeze.”
“The nearest open hospital,” he said, “was a mission hospital 45 kilometers away, the last 12 over rough dirt tracks—and that place was pandemonium.”
Zimbabwe once had “an extraordinary health system,” Beyrer recalls. “It was murdered.”
Three Relief Organizations Operating In Zimbabwe: