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For Zimbabweans, a bleak Christmas looms

Economic, health woes grind on

An man sifted through garbage in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Sunday. Amid economic collapse, there is little sign of the holidays. An man sifted through garbage in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Sunday. Amid economic collapse, there is little sign of the holidays. (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Associated Press)
By Angus Shaw
Associated Press / December 24, 2008
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HARARE, Zimbabwe - At overflowing dumpsters in Zimbabwe's capital, desperate vagrants pounced on garbage bags and fought over chicken bones and scraps of discarded food. Sewage clogged streets and most shopkeepers didn't even bother with holiday decorations.

In crumbling, largely Christian Zimbabwe, where a cholera epidemic has killed more than 1,100 people, Christmas is just another day of suffering.

"There is nothing for us to celebrate. Christmas is a story of hunger," said Monica Rugare. "It is just another day of poverty, the way we are living today."

The country's Christmas tradition of city dwellers heading to the countryside with gifts of food and clothing for their relatives isn't possible this year. Annual church carol services have been subdued, if they were held at all.

Yesterday, children found a bit of cheer playing in the stinking water gushing from a broken sewer in the impoverished Harare neighborhood of Braeside.

Ten-year-old Kudzai Urere, ignoring the warnings from cholera-conscious adults as she leaped about in the murky water, said her mother had gone to search for food and would not be home until nightfall.

When she did return, she would be lucky to bring home vegetables, not toys or candy.

In this country of glaring inequities, there are some who do have the leisure and cash for pastimes like golf, even if they can't escape the stench of chaos.

The sewage flowing down the streets of Braeside emptied into a stream already swollen by heavy seasonal rains. The foul-smelling water ran through a nearby golf course where a few players moved gingerly around it on the fifth fairway yesterday.

Zimbabwe's chaos is opportunity for some. Stories abound of President Robert Mugabe's generals selling the state's diamonds. Another scarce, government-controlled commodity is hard currency. Those close to Mugabe can buy US dollars at the low government rate and sell them on the black market for a hefty profit.

Other Zimbabweans bring in food and other goods from neighboring countries and sell them for US dollars, or have access to hard currency because they work for foreign companies or have relatives abroad.

But for most Zimbabweans, the economic collapse of what was once a regional bread basket has left millions dependent on international handouts.

The cholera outbreak that has killed more than 1,100 people since August is blamed on the collapse of water and sewage facilities bereft of purification chemicals or spare parts. The waterborne disease should be easy to prevent and treat, but not in a country where medical supplies are scarce and all state hospitals have closed because they can't pay staff enough to cover the commute to work.

Doctors Without Borders listed Zimbabwe's health crisis and continuing economic collapse among its "Top 10 Humanitarian Crises of 2008," noting in a report released this week that life expectancy has plummeted to just 34 years of age, according to UN figures. Because of the crisis, some 2 million people infected with the AIDS virus have been forced to skip meals or cannot afford bus fare to clinics, it said.

Critics blame Mugabe's policies, including an often-violent campaign, beginning in 2000, to seize white-owned farms and hand them over to veterans of his guerrilla war against white minority rule. Mugabe blames Western sanctions, though the European Union and United States have targeted only Mugabe and dozens of his clique with frozen bank accounts and travel bans.

With inflation running at more than 231 million percent, the central bank has licensed shops and businesses to trade in hard currency for the sale of imported goods and farm supplies.

Innocent Zuwa, a farmer, said he was unable to plant any crops in the current wet season - he has no hard currency to buy seed and fertilizer.

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