By Terry Leonard
JOHANNESBURG – A Zimbabwean archbishop said on Wednesday he fears 200 000 of his countrymen could die by early next year because of food shortages he blames on his government, and called for President Robert Mugabe’s ouster.
tholic Archbishop Pius Ncube, a frequent and outspoken critic of Mugabe, spoke at a news conference called to show a new film on Operation Murambatsvina, the widely condemned government urban-renewal campaign that critics charge has left tens of thousands of Zimbabweans trapped in a spiral of poverty, hunger and displacement.
“I think Mugabe should just be banished, like what happened to Charles Taylor. He should just be banished from Zimbabwe,” said Ncube, referring to the former Liberian president forced into exile in Nigeria.
“Let the man get banished if you don’t want Zimbabweans to die,” said Ncube, responding to questions about what the international community could do to help Zimbabwe.
The archbishop said food security in Zimbabwe is so precarious that he estimates that unless there is dramatic change, malnutrition could contribute to the premature deaths of 200 000 people by February.
Ncube said it is a personal estimate and based on his belief of the effect of severe food shortages on a population ravaged by HIV/Aids and extreme poverty at a time of hyperinflation and unemployment of almost 80%. He said 700 people a day already are dying of Aids in Zimbabwe and that the rate of deaths will increase with malnutrition.
‘Lives of desperation’
Bishop Rubin Phillip, the Anglican bishop of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and the co-chairperson of the Solidarity Peace Trust, a group of church leaders committed to human rights and democracy, said Zimbabweans “are living lives of desperation with no glimmer of hope”.
He said the Solidarity Peace Trust has documented that hundreds of thousands of people have been “cruelly and deliberately deprived of houses and livelihood by the government of Zimbabwe”.
In May, the government without warning began burning or destroying informal settlements and the kiosks of vendors. The United Nations said at least 700 000 people lost their homes or livelihoods in the campaign it called a clear violation of international law. The clerics say dozens of people, including newborn babies, died as a result of exposure.
“You can see what kind of people we are dealing with here, murderers. I will not mince my words,” said Ncube.
The new film, titled Hide and Seek, shows Mugabe saying the operation was a clean-up campaign that would move people out of unpleasant informal settlements into new and better homes built by the government.
It then interviews Zimbabweans who lost their homes in the campaign and four months later are still living in the open or in makeshift shacks of sticks and plastic sheeting, and cooking over open fires. The clerics estimate tens of thousands of people have simply been dumped in rural areas where they are unknown and unwanted. Nearly all have no jobs, no money. Eighty percent of the children have not gone back to school.
“The amount of suffering is beyond imagination,” said Ncube.
Reverend Ray Motsi, president of the National Pastors Conference in Zimbabwe, said people who initially found refuge in churches were dislodged by armed police in the middle of the night and forced on to trucks that took them to rural areas.
“They had done nothing but commit the crime of poverty,” said Motsi.
‘These people are murderers’
Ncube, clearly angered by the images on the film, said the government of Zimbabwe is only interested in cover-up, lies and making promises it has no intention of delivering.
” Mugabe is the kind of character that even if 50% of Zimbabweans died, he would not care. These people are absolutely murderers,” he said.
The clerics said even though people are starving, the government has refused food aid and restricted the work of international organisations and churches that seek to make food aid available.
They claimed as a result, international food relief is limited and spotty.
Phillip, the Anglican bishop, said the Solidarity Peace Trust is calling on the international community to do more to take care of the people of Zimbabwe and force Mugabe’s government to take care of its people.
“In Zimbabwe, all the able-bodied people have left. All those who are left in the country are victims,” said the Reverend Nicholas Makuronda, an Anglican priest from Harare.
There is nothing the Zimbabwean people can do, said Ncube. The state security apparatus is everywhere.
“In Zimbabwe, police even spy on each other,” said Ncube, adding that the people cannot help themselves, cannot speak out and cannot take to the streets.
“We are dealing here with a force of evil that is beyond your imagination,” said Ncube. – Sapa/AP