Postcard from Zimbabwe

 HWANGE, Zimbabwe — Here’s a measure of how President Robert Mugabe is destroying the once-lush nation of Zimbabwe:

In a week of surreptitious reporting here (committing journalism can be a criminal offense here), ordinary people said time and again that life had been better under the old, racist, white regime of what was then called Rhodesia.

“When the country changed from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, we were very excited,” one man, Kizita, told me in a village of mud-walled huts near this town in western Zimbabwe. “But we didn’t realize the ones we chased away were better and the ones we put in power would oppress us.”

“It would have been better if whites had continued to rule, because the money would have continued to come,” added a neighbor, a 58-year-old farmer named Isaac. “It was better under Rhodesia. Then we could get jobs. Things were cheaper in stores. Now we have no money, no food.”

Over and over, I cringed as I heard Africans wax nostalgic about a nasty, oppressive regime run by a tiny white elite. Black Zimbabweans responded that at least that regime was more competent than today’s nasty, oppressive regime run by the tiny black elite that surrounds Mugabe.

A New York Times colleague, Barry Bearak, was jailed here in 2008 for reporting, so I used a fresh passport to enter the country as a tourist. Partly for my own safety, I avoided interviewing people with ties to the government, so I can’t be sure that my glimpse of the public mood was representative.

People I talked to were terrified for their personal safety if quoted — much more scared than in the past.

But what is clear is that Zimbabwe has come very far downhill over the last few decades (although it has risen a bit since its trough two years ago). An impressive health and education system is in tatters, and life expectancy has tumbled from about 60 years in 1990 to somewhere between 36 and 44, depending on which statistics you believe.

In Kizita’s village, for example, I met a 29-year-old woman, seven months pregnant, who had malaria. She and her husband had walked more than 6 kilometers to the nearest clinic, where she was diagnosed with malaria. But the clinic refused to give her some life-saving anti-malaria medicine unless she paid $2 — and she had no money at all in her house. So, dizzy and feverish, she stumbled home for another 6 kilometers, empty-handed.

As it happened, the clinic that turned her down was one that I had already visited. Nurses there had complained that they were desperately short of bandages, antibiotics and beds. They said that to survive, they impose fees for seeing patients, for family planning, for safe childbirth — and the upshot is that impoverished villagers die because they can’t pay.

I also spent time at an elementary school where the number of students had dropped sharply because so few parents today can afford $36 in annual school fees.

“We don’t have desks. We don’t have chairs. We don’t have books,” explained the principal, who was terrified of being named. The school also lacks electricity and water, and the first grade doesn’t have a classroom and meets under a tree.

The tragedy that has unfolded here can be reversed if Mugabe is obliged by international pressure, particularly from South Africa, to hold free elections. Worldwide pressure forced the oppressive Rhodesian regime to give up power three decades ago. Now we need similar pressure, from African countries as well as Western powers, to pry Mugabe’s fingers from his chokehold on a lovely country.

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