Starvation Hovers over Zimbabwe

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Even in the best of times, food is scarce in Mutiusinazita. And these are not the best of times in Zimbabwe. The farmers who eke out a living planting drought-resistant crops like sorghum in the harsh, sandy soil this year found that even when plentiful rains ended six straight years of drought, not even those hardiest of crops would grow — because the farmers had no fertilizer. Faced with starvation, villagers are now surviving off tree roots and a porridge made from the fruit of baobab trees. "The baobab trees are prevalent in this area and they are the main source of food now," explains Samuel Tsungirai Muzerengwa, a local senator for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). "People can't afford the staple maize meal anymore. Some collect wild roots for consumption. [Some are] developing outlandish diseases from indiscriminately eating wild fruits."

Mutiusinazita, like much of rural Zimbabwe, is hungry, and hostage to the country's political stalemate. Years of economic free-fall and the government's decision to expel humanitarian aid organizations ahead of the controversial June 27 runoff presidential election have left farming communities on the brink of starvation. Saving rural Zimbabwe from starvation will require a political settlement that restarts the economy and restores international assistance, but President Robert Mugabe remains locked in a stalemate over how to share power with MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Tsvangirai won more votes than Mugabe in the first round vote on March 29, but boycotted the runoff in the face of violent intimidation. South African-mediated talks have sought to create a unity government, but the two sides cannot agree on how to allocate power within such an arrangement. (See photos of Political Tension in Zimbabwe here).

After a meeting between the two sides in Harare, Tuesday, Tsvangirai said there had been a "positive development," indicating that a settlement might be in the works. The talks had earlier appeared to be on the brink of collapse, as both sides balked at a proposal by the South African mediator, President Thabo Mbeki, for an equal power sharing arrangement. For villages like Mutiusinazitsa, relief from hunger may depend heavily on the troubled talks in Harare reaching a positive conclusion.

Although Mugabe has reversed the ban on aid groups delivering food since the election, officials from those groups say the damage has already been done. Both the U.N. Food Agricultural Organization and the World Food Program expect that by early next year, more than 5 million Zimbabweans — about 45% of the population — will suffer food insecurity. A separate report from two human rights organizations says that nearly half the population now faces starvation, and that poor families are resorting to such desperate measures as marrying off their underage daughters to older men in exchange for food security. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has appealed for $26.6 million to help them deliver aid to 260,100 vulnerable people. The fact that the number of Zimbabweans at risk is expected to rise to almost 20 times that number "gives a clear indication of how severe the situation is and could become," said Peter Lundberg, the head of the IFRC's delegation in Harare. "We are very concerned."

Around Mutiusinazita, the schools are empty and the clinics are filling up with malnutrition cases, both children and adult. "We have cases of children fainting because of hunger," says Samson Chauke, a teacher at a nearby school. As growing numbers of students have dropped out due to hunger and the inability of families to pay the fees, teachers — whose wages are rendered pitiful by runaway inflation — are also abandoning the school in order to work the illegal diamond mines in nearby Marange. At one market in Mutisinazita, a bucket of maize meal was last week selling for 20 trillion Zimbabwe dollars (about $13), four times the monthly salary of an average civil servant. "We are also hungry," says Chauke. "We need to be paid in foreign currency because every commodity is being imported." A senior nurse at the local district hospital said that the number of children admitted with severe malnutrition increased from 10 in March to 40 by the end of July. "The ban by the government on humanitarian agencies shifted the burden on us greatly," she told TIME, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In the village of Gunura, Muchaneta Makuyana is on the verge of dying, because she has lost access to her food rations from Africare, an organization that provides home-based care for HIV and AIDS sufferers. Lying on a reed mat on the floor, Makuyana's skeletal frame heaves as she coughs weakly. "I could be dying anytime," she says. "Africare used to help me with food, but there is nothing anymore. I can no longer do anything on my own, but rely on others. Sometimes they leave me without any care at all."

Zimbabwe's hunger is by no means restricted to the countryside. As an unemployed property owner in Harare put it: "I can't afford to feed my family anymore, so I have told my children to lay their hands on anything, including illegal activities. We only eat once or twice a day. Most of the time we turn the screws on our tenants." (See photos of Ethiopia's harvest of hunger here.)

With reporting from correspondents inside Zimbabwe