Killing Them Softly

by James Kirchick | March 5, 2007

Less than ten miles from Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's mansion in Harare--the largest private residence on the African continent--Cleophus Masxigora digs for mice. On a good day, he told me, he can find 100 to 200. To capture the vermin, he burns brush to immobilize them, then kills them with several thumps of a shovel. This practice has become so widespread in Zimbabwe that, as a Zimbabwean journalist informed me, state-run television has broadcast warnings against citizens setting brush fires. Masxigora began hunting mice to support (and feed) his wife and three children soon after Mugabe began confiscating thousands of productive, white-owned farms in 2000, a policy that has since led to mass starvation. Courtesy Jamie KirchickNot long ago, Zimbabwe, the "breadbasket of Africa," exported meat and produced what was widely considered to be Africa's finest livestock. Today, Masxigora tells me that each mouse nets $30 Zim dollars, about 12 cents, which makes him a wealthy man in Zimbabwe. "This is beef to us," he told me in August.

The conditions Mugabe rendered in Zimbabwe do not merely stem from idealistic economic and social policies gone awry. He has undertaken a campaign of violence and starvation against political opponents, the fallout of which is killing tens of thousands, if not more, every year. In 2005, there were roughly 4,000 more deaths each week than births, a rate that the famine has surely increased. This is worse than brutality. The United Nations says that "deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part" constitutes genocide, and that is exactly what Robert Mugabe has wrought.

 

The genocide in Zimbabwe is not as stark as others. There are no cattle cars and gas chambers. There are no machete-wielding gangs roaming the countryside. There are no helicopter gunships or Janjaweed. The killing in Zimbabwe is slow, oftentimes indirect, and not particularly bloody. But Mugabe's campaign of mass murder against those who oppose him has been no less deliberate than any of the other genocides in human history.

It all began with Mugabe's land seizures in 2000, in which he booted white farmers from the property they owned and replaced them with political hacks who have no interest in agriculture. The results were disastrous. Zimbabwe annually requires 1.8 million metric tons of maize. Yet, in 2006, for instance, it faced an 850,000 metric ton deficit -- of which planned imports would cover just 60 percent, with only 28 percent of that delivered by December. The country also requires 400,000 tons of wheat annually, yet, last year, it produced only 218,000 tons by the government's count -- meaning the true total was likely far less. As early as 2002, the BBC was reporting that people in Matabeleland, the southern region of the country where the minority Ndebele tribe lives, were starving. That same year, on the eve of a massive drought, the Minister of Zimbabwean State Security said, "We would be better off with only six million people--with our own who support the liberation struggle. We don't want all these extra people." Today, according to the World Food Program, 38 percent of Zimbabweans are malnourished.

Courtesy Jamie KirchickThe fallout has rippled through society: Zimbabwe has the world's highest inflation rate (1,600 percent annually, expected to hit 4,000 by the end of the year) and an HIV prevalence of at least 18 percent, and probably higher. It also has the lowest life expectancy, by far, in the world: 34 for women and 37 for men (it was 62 in 1990). Last year, 42,000 women died from childbirth; less than a decade ago, this figure was under 1,000. The weekly death rate exceeds Darfur's.

Meanwhile, Mugabe's party, ZANU-PF, is wielding the food shortage as a weapon against the opposition. The government's Grain Marketing Board frequently denies food aid to people in districts that voted against Mugabe in recent elections; only those with ZANU-PF membership cards are able to get rations. Several people I spoke with in Harare's poor township of Hatcliffe told me that the army and the police regularly interfere with food distribution from USAID, UNICEF, and other international aid groups. In 2002, USAID director Andrew Natsios publicly scolded Mugabe for manipulating American food aid, a practice that has continued unabated. And a 2004 Amnesty International report warned that "[T]he government has used the food shortages for political purposes and to punish political opponents."

Then, as if starvation weren't bad enough, Mugabe unleashed more destruction in May 2005. Operation Murambatsvina (Shona for "Drive out Filth") aimed to "re-ruralize" some 1 million Zimbabweans--mostly poor, urban shanty dwellers from areas that voted against Mugabe in parliamentary elections just weeks earlier. Mugabe's henchmen forcibly cleared the slums. A United Nations report filed by a special representative of the secretary-general, found that the operation 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 legal frameworks." The Fourth Geneva Convention considers the "deportation or forcible transfer of population" to be a crime against humanity.

There is historic and legal precedent to warrant calling these policies genocide. In 1996, U.N Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali declared that Rwandan Hutu refugees living in Zaire might be potential victims of "genocide by starvation." In December of 2006, the former Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam (also known as the "African Pol Pot") was found guilty of genocide by a court in his own country after a twelve-year trial. His government was convicted of having "conspired to destroy a political group and kill people with impunity"--not only through actual murder, but by creating and prolonging the 1984 Tigray famine, in which some 1.5 million people died. In 1991, Mariam escaped from Ethiopia, finding asylum in, of all places, Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

Incidentally, the starvation and transfer of Mugabe's opponents isn't the first time he has has unleashed a genocidal campaign against his own people. Not long after taking power, in the mid-'80s, Mugabe's North Korean-trained ZANU-PF army killed an estimated 25,000 Ndebeles (the minority tribe to Mugabe's own Shona majority) in an operation known as the Gukurahundi (Shona for "the early rain which washes away the chaff"). The Matabeleland massacre ended, once and for all, any Ndebele challenge to Mugabe's power.

 

People are finally beginning to call it like they see it in Zimbabwe. R.W. Johnson, an Oxford-trained academic and for many years the London Sunday Times' southern Africa correspondent, declared in a recent dispatch that "A vast human cull is under way in Zimbabwe and the great majority of deaths are a direct result of deliberate government policies. Ignored by the United Nations, it is a genocide perhaps 10 times greater than Darfur's and more than twice as large as Rwanda's." (Johnson reported the widely published number of three million Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa and one million who have fled elsewhere, leaving a population of 14 million in Zimbabwe. But the government itself publishes an official figure of 12 million citizens, leaving 2 million people "missing.") And Arnold Tsunga, chairman of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition (an NGO devoted to democracy and the rule of law in Zimbabwe), called Mugabe's policies "smart genocide," because they have taken place unnoticed by governments, aid organizations, and the international press.

Will anything come of it? This month, South Africa took over the rotating U.N. Security Council presidency. Although it's a perfect opportunity to publicize Mugabe's crimes, South Africa, the regional power, has emboldened Mugabe by endorsing every instance of his election-theft (flying in the face of international observer teams), supplying him with economic aid, and strengthening the countries' military alliance. So it's likely nothing will happen.

Last month, Mugabe and 10,000 of his supporters gathered in a soccer stadium to celebrate his eighty-third birthday--gorging on giant cakes, tons of corn meal, and 38 cattle slaughtered specifically for the event. "We are terribly disappointed," one man--who brought his wife and children to the event but was not allowed in--told the Guardian. "This was an opportunity for us to get a proper meal." So, while Mugabe feasts, men like Cleophus Masxigora continue to scour for mice.

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