Jewish World Review Sept. 20, 2002 / 14 Tishrei, 5762

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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Starving time in Zimbabwe | He is a bloody dictator and a hard-core racist. He clings to power with undisguised brutality, rigging elections and arranging for opposition candidates to be kidnapped, beaten -- even killed. He has made criticism of himself a crime, and deploys squads of armed goons to terrorize his political foes. He is engaged in a campaign of naked ethnic cleansing, scapegoating racial minorities as "enemies of the state" and driving them from their land. His policies have shattered the economy, leaving more than half the workforce unemployed. He uses food as a weapon so ruthlessly that in a country that was once a breadbasket to its neighbors, the specter of mass starvation looms.

What does Robert Mugabe have to do before the civilized world finally makes him stop?

For months the media have dutifully reported the bleak news out of Zimbabwe, which Mugabe has ruled since it became independent in 1980. Reporters have filed stories about the presidential election Mugabe stole in March, about his campaign to dispossess Zimbabwe's several thousand white farm owners, about the widening food crisis that is pushing millions into famine. The impression they convey is one of Third World despotism, corruption, and thuggishness -- an all-too-familiar tableau.

But Mugabe is not just another African strongman. He is a sociopath determined to hold power at all costs -- even if those costs include mass murder. Must it come to that before the outside world intervenes?

To get a sense of how hideous life in Mugabe's Zimbabwe has become, consider that rape has become a favored means of political control. Thousands of Zimbabwean girls and women have been raped by policemen and members of the "war veterans," as the gangs of armed Mugabe loyalists call themselves. An Australian newspaper reported recently on the punishment meted out to Dora, a 12-year-old whose father had made the mistake of voting for the Movement for Democratic Change, Zimbabwe's main opposition party.

"For . . . four hours, the girl's mother and younger sisters, aged 9 and 7, were forced to chant praises to . . . Mugabe and watch Dora being gang-raped. . . . Dora's screams in the African night were a warning to all the other villagers as to what might happen to those who even think of defying the president again."

At least Dora was spared the fate of hundreds of other women and girls, who have been herded into rape camps run by Mugabe's youth militia, the so-called Green Bombers. Whether she was spared an even more terrible fate, she does not yet know: Nearly 40 percent of Zimbabweans are infected with HIV, and sexual assault frequently leads to death.

Rape is not the only weapon in Mugabe's political arsenal.

Like Stalin in the 1930s, Mugabe is now using famine to defeat his opponents. The few thousand white farmers who grow most of Zimbabwe's food are being demonized in poisonously racist terms and forcibly evicted from their land. Their black employees are being thrown off the farms along with them, often after savage beatings by Mugabe's thugs. An estimated 780,000 Zimbabweans have been expelled so far; most are now without homes or income. Acre upon acre of rich farmland lies unplanted and untended. Food production has plummeted. As many as 6 million people -- half of Zimbabwe -- is at risk of starvation.

"In the last two years," writes David Coltart, an opposition member of parliament, "Zimbabwe has been transformed into a state that increasingly resembles Cambodia under Pol Pot."

As famine spreads, food donations have poured in. But the regime sees to it that food goes only to its supporters in Mugabe's party -- the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front.

"It's quite simple," a hungry Zimbabwean told The Times of London last month. "Those who have ZANU-PF cards get food; those who don't, starve."

He explained how it works. When food trucks arrive in the villages, "everyone has to stand up and shout, 'Long live Robert Mugabe!', 'Down with the whites!', and 'Down with Morgan Tsvangirai!' (the opposition leader). Only those who can prove they are members of the ZANU-PF can queue. They say to the others, 'Go and get your food from Tony Blair,' " the British prime minister who has bluntly condemned Mugabe's "corrupt and ruinous" misrule.

In other villages, meanwhile -- those that supported Tsvangirai in the election last March -- the food trucks never come. According to the International Crisis Group, a think tank focused on the resolution of deadly conflicts, the Mugabe regime is using "selective starvation" to crush dissent.

"The denial of food to opposition strongholds has replaced overt violence as the government's principal tool of repression," the ICG wrote in August. "People are beginning to die. . ."

Millions of lives are at stake. The surest way to save those lives would be to force Mugabe from power. A detachment of Marines could do the job on its lunch break. But that would mean interfering in another country's "internal affairs" and is, of course, politically unthinkable. Perhaps we will think differently when the corpses begin to pile up.

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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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