'Now the Terror Has Returned'

Sunday, February 1, 2009

How much lower can Zimbabwe sink? Chronic food shortages, hyperinflation, a cholera epidemic, people abducted for speaking out against President Robert Mugabe's regime -- all this is the stuff of daily life for ordinary Zimbabweans, as related here by a journalist in Harare, the capital. She reports for PBS's Frontline/World, with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Her name is withheld for her safety.

Dec. 5, 2008 -- Disappeared

The shrill ring of my phone awakens me. Sleep does not come easily these days. I'd like to turn off my mobile at night, but what if my son should call? I miss him but cannot risk living near him. My profession makes me a target.

I pick up the phone. It's a colleague, and she has bad news. Jestina Mukoko, a human rights activist, is missing. She was abducted from her home not far from Harare two days ago, my colleague tells me. Her teenage son watched as the armed intruders shoved her, barefoot and still in her pajamas, into a car.

Mukoko, one of the few women to have made it in the Zimbabwean media, was a role model for me during my college days. She worked for the country's only television station, run by the state-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corp. When Mugabe tightened his grip, she quit her job as a newscaster, ultimately joining a human rights organization called the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP). Mukoko and the ZPP, with their countrywide network of secret volunteers who provide information about politically motivated violence, are invaluable to what is left of our independent press.

Abductions such as Mukoko's were common leading up to the run-off election last June. Facing certain defeat in a fair fight, Mugabe turned to violence. At least 86 supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition party were killed and 10,000 were injured, according to party leader Morgan Tsvangirai. I suspect that those numbers are actually much higher. The attacks abated in September, when Mugabe and the MDC reached a tentative settlement. But he quickly went back on his word. Now the terror has returned.

Dec. 20 -- The Billion-Dollar Bread Line

The government recently introduced a 10-billion-dollar bill, but with inflation at 89.7 sextillion percent, it soon will barely buy a loaf of bread. So at 4 a.m. I set off for the bank, where my $100 billion monthly salary has just been deposited. I even feel a little bit happy. I will be the first person to arrive, I think to myself. After withdrawing my money, I will rush to the supermarket to buy whatever I can find before the cash loses its value.

When I reach the bank, people are already waiting. The security guard gives me a number: I'm 105th in line. It's not long before the sun comes up, and the temperature rises. There are whispers that the bank doesn't have enough cash to go around. Everything is in short supply these days -- milk, bread, meat, salt, sugar, gas, even toilet paper.

At 5:45 p.m., after 13 hours in line, it's my turn. But the bank is giving only $10 billion to each customer. I dash to the supermarket. The $10 billion buys one loaf of bread. I could have bought two that morning.

Afraid that one of the thousands of starving people will beg for my loaf or that a neighbor will see it, I wrap it in old newspaper. I can't believe my own tightfistedness. But my husband and I have gone without bread for a week.

Dec. 24 -- Mukoko Surfaces

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