U.N. Official Calls Visit ‘Heartbreaking’

Daily News Article   —   Posted on December 9, 2005

(by Betsy Pisik, Dec. 9, 2005, WashingtonTimes.com) NEW YORK — The U.N. official in charge of humanitarian relief yesterday described a four-day visit to Zimbabwe as “heartbreaking” and expressed frustration with the government’s handling of crises in food, housing and AIDS.
    Although the government of President Robert Mugabe had begun to erect permanent shelters and seek outside assistance, aid director Jan Egeland said the effort was far too little to accommodate the desperation he saw in the cities of Harare and Bulawayo.
    “Zimbabwe is in a deep crisis,” Mr. Egeland told reporters. “There are millions of people with their backs to the wall trying to feed themselves.”
    Inflation is up to 400 percent, while food stocks in Zimbabwe, once the marketbasket of southern Africa, are dwindling. Power and water shortages are increasing. Life expectancy has dropped from 60 years to 32, Mr. Egeland said.
    He described grandmothers caring for AIDS orphans, and families living in open fields and in shelters fashioned out of branches and plastic sheeting. Still others have crowded into the homes of friends or family, creating desperate health and sanitation conditions.
    The United Nations put up tents, but the government tore them down in October, Mr. Egeland said, because the tents created the appearance of a crisis.
    Additionally, U.N. and other aid groups have been unable to penetrate overlapping layers of red tape to deliver emergency supplies and erect tents and sanitation.
    “At the speed they have now, it will take decades to put people in permanent shelter,” he said.
    Human rights groups and aid organizations also have criticized the government, saying it has tried to coerce people to leave the cities and relocate to the country, where jobs and government services are scarce.
    In May, Mr. Mugabe ordered soldiers and police to begin tearing down shantytowns and many marketplaces, leaving more than 700,000 already impoverished Zimbabweans homeless or jobless.
    Another 2 million have been affected by the program, which the government describes as urban renewal and others characterize as a brutal effort to consolidate political power and punish the urban areas that supported rival parties in the last election.
    A U.N. report on Zimbabwe’s Operation Sweep Out Trash said the springtime destruction “was carried out in an indiscriminate and unjustified manner, with indifference to human suffering and, in repeated cases, with disregard to several provisions of national and international law.”
    Mr. Mugabe, who has ruled since 1980, denies that his policies are responsible for an economic collapse that has saddled Zimbabwe’s 12 million people with shortages of food, fuel and housing.
    The 81-year-old leader blames Western opponents for sabotaging the economy.
    Mr. Egeland said he has met with donors to assure them they are helping the people of Zimbabwe, not the government. The United Nations has appealed for $276 million, for emergency assistance, and expects to be feeding 3 million people until the April harvests.
    Human rights groups repeatedly have criticized the increasingly harsh Mugabe regime, in power for 25 years.
    “Zimbabwe’s blocking of humanitarian assistance for its displaced population is unconscionable,” Human Rights Watch Africa Director Peter Takirambudde said earlier this month.
    “Such actions threaten the very survival of these people.”

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