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In Zimbabwe, Withholding of Food Magnifies the Hunger for Change

Catholic Archbishop Pius A. Ncube, a leading critic of Mugabe in nearby Bulawayo, said the use of food as a weapon was common throughout the country this election year, as it was in 2000 and 2002. "They are totally corrupt, and they will use anything to protect their power," he said.

Here in Zhulube, 82-year-old Asa Sibanda said her refusal to support ZANU-PF had cut her off for years from food reserves controlled by the government and the party. Instead, she supports herself, five orphaned grandchildren and one great-grandchild by selling chickens and getting occasional gifts of cornmeal from her son, who lives nearby. Her total income, she said, is a few dollars each month.

Zimbabweans wait to buy food from the government, which denied food aid to the opposition. (Schalk Van Zuydam -- AP)

Though she did not get government food, she used to get regular deliveries of cornmeal, beans and other food from international aid groups. But in the middle of last year, Mugabe ordered an end to such efforts. As for the chickens, only eight are left.

Sibanda said some people in her village would vote for the ruling party out of fear that government food aid will otherwise be withheld. "Most people, they are not voting for ZANU-PF, but they are voting for food," she said. Yet she and many other opposition supporters will not be doing the same, she said. "I choose to die rather than be arm-twisted to go back to ZANU-PF."

Hunger has become a central rallying point for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which features images of green, fertile fields and well-stocked grocery shelves in its television ads.

A victory for the opposition, party members say, would allow Zimbabwe to rapidly repair the international relations of a country that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in January called one of the world's "outposts of tyranny." Major food aid, plus a resumption of foreign investment, say opposition leaders, would quickly follow.

Matema, the widow, is ready for some good news. In October and November, three of her four head of cattle died as a result of the drought. The following month -- two days before Christmas -- her husband died. Later, when the rains failed in January and February, her fields of corn turned brown, leaving only a handful of plants with enough water to grow ears with edible kernels. An adjacent field of peanuts was also a nearly total loss.

"We are hoping for a change," she said.

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