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Friday, 8 November, 2002, 17:25 GMT
Zimbabwe crisis: You asked the BBC's Mike Donkin
Zimbabwe Forum: Ask Mike Donkin

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    The BBC's Mike Donkin has recently returned from Zimbabwe, despite a ban on foreign correspondents there.

    He has been reporting on the country's faltering economy and the continuing food shortages.

    Currently some four and a half million Zimbabweans need food aid, a number which is expected to soar to 6.7 million by next March.

    But Save the Children, Oxfam and other relief agencies have all had distribution stopped or disrupted.

    The European Union and the United States have both condemned the government for diverting food aid to its own supporters and ignoring opposition activists.

    Zimbabwean Foreign Minister Stan Mudenge told state television that reports that the aid was blocked were "a fandango of a fairy tale of lies" concocted by opponents of the government.

    Meanwhile, a leading Zimbabwean churchman has called on President Mugabe to stand down, rather than starve his own people to keep power.

    What is the situation for people in Zimbabwe? Is food aid getting through? Will President Mugabe step down?

    BBC correspondent Mike Donkin answered your questions on Friday, 8 November.



    Hello and welcome to this BBC Interactive forum.

    Around 4.5 million Zimbabweans need food aid - a number which is expected to soar to 6.7 million by next March.

    The European Union has condemned the government of President Robert Mugabe for diverting the food aid to its own supporters and ignoring opposition activists. Save the Children, Oxfam and other relief agencies have all had distribution stopped or disrupted.

    BBC correspondent, Mike Donkin, has been to Zimbabwe, despite a ban on BBC reporters. He's now here to answer your questions. Thanks for joining us Mike.

    The first e-mail is from Philip in Belgium: I heard you on the radio and was wondering why 3 million people may have to die again, like in Rwanda, before the EU and UN will start investigating the matter in Zimbabwe? Why can't they be pro-active? Or is suspending Mr Mugabe visa for the EU enough for Brussels?

    Mike Donkin:

    Shall we start with what I saw on my trip and then I'll tell you what I think about that.

    I spent a couple of weeks there. It's the first time I've been to Zimbabwe and I travelled around fairly extensively. You have a situation there where the white commercial farmers are now being driven from their land - there are very few left.

    That land, when they leave it, with them go the black farm workers. They are something like 1.5 million of them now it seems displaced with nowhere to go. They're in a much tougher situation, it has to be said, than their former bosses. This is as a result of Mr Mugabe's land reform policies. Mr Mugabe is dealing fairly stiffly with any opposition that comes his way to those policies.

    Therefore you have an internal situation which it's difficult for anyone in the country to compete with. Given that, the idea that the European Union - outside forces - could do anything is, at this stage, asking a lot. To start with, what rights do they have to intervene?


    Philip is concerned about that precise point - what can be done? For instance today there was a suggestion that possibly food aid could be dropped from the air by helicopters. Is there anything possible at this stage that can be done to short-circuit what's happening with the Mugabe policies there?

    Mike Donkin:

    Mr Mugabe's government would say, of course, that it hasn't even reached that stage at all - that they're perfectly capable of feeding their people. The problem that they have is that as they shut down these commercial farms nothing much is being grown in place of the food that these farmers had been growing.

    It's the sowing season, the rains are about to come. The settlers who are being moved onto that land - mainly Zanu PF party supporters - are not farmers themselves. They don't have the seeds, the fertilisers, to start doing the job. Therefore there is already a shortfall of food - we came across that - and that shortfall is going to get worse because we have predictions of perhaps the drought getting more serious.

    Now when you start talking about helicopters dropping food, that presumes that there is some kind of structure on the ground for that food to be distributed. At the moment, the NGOs, the non-governmental organisations, that are operating in Zimbabwe are having a lot of trouble with Mr Mugabe's government because he would like to see the food distributed in the way that the government sees fit. A lot of people say that's just to supporters of the government.

    So on the ground, you have villages where the opposition is the stronger party and they're complaining they're not getting any food at all. So if willy-nilly helicopters drop aid into what is anyway a sizeable African country - how is it handled on the ground, who does that?


    This e-mail has just come in from Chi Langwe: How long were you in Zimbabwe and where were you allowed to go?

    Mike Donkin:

    Well a question of being allowed to go doesn't really arise. The BBC is banned from going in anyway.

    I spent a couple of weeks there and I travelled around. I came down from the north of the country to Harare. I spent some time in Harare. I travelled down to the south to Bulawayo and beyond Bulawayo to some of the areas where the drought is at its most serve down there and where the food shortages are most severe and where the people are suffering most.

    So that was the context of the trip. Within that, I guess I saw quite a lot on the ground. As you drive along the roads you see farm workers who've been ousted at the roadside. Refugee camps where they end up.

    You see white farmers with their lorries full of all their worldly goods after 80 - 90 years - driving off to, what they see, is a very uncertain future as well. So that's what I actually saw on the ground.


    Njabulo Mpabangam, 20 year old Zimbabwean given asylum in UK: I am deeply disturbed by what is happening at home. Isn't Mr. Mugabe, in trying to prove to the rest of world that he is capable of running his own country, inflicting irreparable damage on his own economy and its people?

    Mike, what was your eye-witness view on what was happening before you. Did you see people starving? Was there a real situation that would be in any civilised part of the world, a real concern?

    Mike Donkin:

    Certainly a concern. You do not see people starving - this is not a classic Ethiopian famine situation - it may come to that, who knows. There is a prediction that six or seven million people will, in the coming months, face severe hunger. If the political situation in the country stays the same, with the same isolation that Mr Mugabe seems to be encouraging the country towards, that is clearly a danger. But no, no famine yet.

    In terms of commenting on why this is all coming about, the economy of the country and the state that it's in. I can't offer my opinion. I can reflect on the opinion given to me by the Bishop of Bulawayo - one of the senior churchmen in the country - who told us the economy is in tatters, people are leaving in droves. He said, Mr Mugabe's policies are to blame for this happening.


    Wendol Williams, British Virgin Islands: It is so unfair that after so many years of apartheid and colonialism that American and Britain are starving the people of Zimbabwe for the same thing that they did to them many years ago, that is taking their land.

    Mike Donkin:

    The issue of land is absolutely central, absolutely fundamental in Zimbabwe and of course long disputed.

    A century or so ago, it was Britain who came in. Cecil Rhodes founded Rhodesia and Zimbabwe was a half of that. So yes, the land you could say was taken away from the people of that country in the first place. The fact that that land was then - the white farmers would certainly say - improved so that the country as a whole benefited - so that the blacks benefited with whites - is a secondary argument.

    Twenty years ago Zimbabwe got its independence and from then on, of course, Mr Mugabe has been making the decisions. But he lived - it's true to say he still lives with that colonial background.

    So when it comes to a question of attributing blame, that's a very hard thing to attribute. Every country has a history - Zimbabwe's has a history of colonialism - clearly that plays into the present situation.


    This question just in from Tom Stubbs: Why won't sanctions be imposed by the UN on Zimbabwe?

    Mike Donkin:

    What has happened - and only very recently - is that the EU has challenged the government on the way that it is distributing food aid there. The EU has made this point that food is being distributed politically and it wants the government to stop doing that. The government, of course denies that that is the case.

    The opposition - the Movement for Democratic Change - the main opposition party, they would say - yes, indeed food is being distributed politically and they have indeed called for the United Nations to be brought into the fray.

    Up to now the United Nations hasn't had a lot to say about this. It's fair to say that the United Nations has been somewhat preoccupied with the Middle East, with Iraq, with other issues. But up to now Zimbabwe hasn't featured heavily.

    Mr Tsvangirai would like that to be the case. Maybe we'll see in the future. As the situation gets one that is going to be of more concern - and that seems to be everybody's prediction - then maybe we'll see the UN playing a more active role.


    Kevin, Germany: If Bush and Blair or so keen to get rid of terrorists and mass murderers why are they not pursuing "regime change" in Zimbabwe?

    Mike Donkin:

    You could say that Mr Bush and Mr Blair probably have rather a lot on their plate at the moment anyway and dealing with Iraq and dealing with the post-Afghan situation is quite enough to be going on with.

    But equally it's very hard for Britain to get involved because Britain was the colonial power. Mr Mugabe, each time that Britain does condemn - and there has been a lot of condemnation in Britain - Mr Mugabe then says, well, they would say that anyway - these are the old imperialists still trying to tell us what to do. And amongst his people that has a currency. People were unhappy about the way that Britain handled things in the past and when independence came along twenty years ago, they saw it as a fresh start.

    But for Mr Bush and Mr Blair generally, for the West to start trying to impose solutions on Zimbabwe would not go down well. It particularly wouldn't go down well, I guess, with Zimbabwe's African neighbours because in the past Mr Mugabe has been a good friend to the ANC when it fought for freedom from white domination in South Africa.

    So Mr Mugabe is quite a substantial figure in the region. For Britain and America to start coming in and wielding the big stick could prove to be actually very counterproductive.


    This e-mail has just come in from Diane Mangam: What can I do as an individual to assist with food aid? Is there a reliable charity I could actually use to donate money?

    Mike Donkin:

    That's a hard one. The big aid agencies - Save the Children, Oxfam, Christian Aid and Cafod (which is the Catholic agency), are all working very hard to try and do their bit in Zimbabwe and within the strictures that the government allows - yes they are doing good.

    So I guess that our correspondent could do worse than send them some cash and at least part of that will probably find its way in that direction.

    One of the things I was impressed with when I was there is the work of the small individual NGOs. I met a Zimbabwean churchman who is running a camp for displaced people. Now I have no idea how money could be contributed to them. But let's not forget that outside of the international arena, there are a lot of people in the country who are concerned about what's going on, who are quite bravely in the circumstances trying to do their bit.


    Mark, London: How difficult is it for you to report under the restrictions Mr Mugabe has imposed on you?

    Mike Donkin:

    Needless to say, it's very difficult. One doesn't announce that one's going there. One doesn't talk to the Zimbabwean government when one gets there. And although one doesn't exactly have to creep around - the situation is not that bad. But you do have a concern, not just for yourself because it would obviously be quite convenient for Mr Mugabe in a situation like this to be able to say, we banned the BBC and here we have a BBC reporting slipping into our country, this proves what I said, that we're dealing with an organisation that has no respect for our sovereignty etc. So it doesn't come that.

    But you have to be quite careful also about the people who you're talking to because, let's face it, in a country where there is repression, there is torture going on - I heard eye-witness accounts of that - which are completely and utterly indisputable - where people are routinely beaten up in the streets even if they happen not to go to a Zanu PF rally.

    You have to be careful that the people you talk to are not brought into problems that they don't deserve by your very being there - by your talking to them. And I hope that after my visit that won't happen. It would be a great, great shame because a lot of people, very bravely, had things to say to us . Some of them wanted their names to be used - wanted to be on the air - some of them said, I'll tell you this but please don't show my face - that's the degree of fear.


    As a foreign correspondent you have sensed the level of emergency when you get people who are prepared to put their head above the parapet and effectively risk their lives by speaking to a journalist.

    Mike Donkin:

    I think so. Someone like the Bishop, for example, has the protection at least of the cloth, of being a churchman when he tells us that he thinks that Mr Mugabe may have been a good servant to Zimbabwe in the past but Mr Mugabe should now go. Normal people don't have that protection. When they speak out it's because they are very angry about the situation, they are very concerned about their future. They don't actually feel, some of them, that they have got a lot to lose.

    As things get worse, with the food situation, I think we're going to see - a lot of people told me this - more people speaking out, more people going onto the streets. And then we might find that Mr Mugabe, who has managed to rack up the repression and has managed thus far to hold the line, is going to find it that much harder. And he then has a choice. He can either get tougher still - which may rebound - or he might have to just start listening to a lot of, what seem to be, the legitimate complaints that his people have.


    This e-mail has just come in from Timmy in Zimbabwe: The situation on the ground is worse than I have seen reported. Would you agree with this?

    Mike Donkin:

    I would. When I went, I thought the situation was a serious one. Because we haven't been able to see for ourselves just how bad, it came as a shock to me when I went in, to see just how difficult it was for ordinary people to get by at the moment. Ordinary people who are trying to get maize to make their mealy-meal - their basic foodstuff - to get bread to feed their families and so forth. They're having difficulties.

    Of course people out in the drought-hit areas are having much more severe difficulties. One elder in a village told me, well we only eat every other day, we let the children, the young people, eat every day - for us we just have to hold back because there's not enough food to go around.

    So this is the kind of situation that you're actually faced with. And every day the currency - the Zimbabwean dollar - gets less and less in value. It buys less and less for people within the country. A lot of food and raw materials and so forth had to be imported - people can't buy the basics because Zimbabwe doesn't have a currency that allows them to.


    I'm afraid that's all the time we've got left. Thanks once again to Mike Donkin for coming in and answering those questions. Thank you for your live e-mails. I'm sorry we didn't get around to dealing with all of them. Good bye.

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    07 Nov 02 | Africa
    07 Nov 02 | Africa
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