If it was Robert Mugabe’s intention to organize hell on Earth, he has succeeded. It’s December in Zimbabwe, and that means the rains are frequent and the sun is at its hottest. The harvest–predicted to be ridiculously inadequate–is half a year away. Electricity is sporadic. No garbage has been collected for months. There has been no running water in many cities for days. Zimbabwe is a steam-bath of infection. Cholera, that most medieval of diseases, and the ultimate indication of a state that has failed her people, is rampant. Violence spills over.
I follow every new development because those are my people, in that hell.
Zimbabweans are not strangers to violence and terror. We once fought a bloody civil war to decide who would control the land. Brother turned on brother. We all lost someone in those years, and many of us learned to live with death; it was the background noise to our lives. Villages were razed to the ground. Yes, there were atrocities.
It was war, but it wasn’t hell.
People risked death, endured heartbreak, rather than turn their backs on the country. Always, there was an understanding that the land was worth the fight. And in the end, when peace came, Mugabe himself put it best: “To us the time has come for those who fought each other as enemies to accept the reality of a new situation by accepting each other as allies.”
Most Zimbabweans settled down and did just that, brought together by a common loyalty to the earth beneath their feet. But in the last few years, with Mugabe and his crazed henchmen in control of a diabolically orchestrated free-fall, an estimated four million people have fled their country.
Above all, Zimbabweans are lovers of their land. No, that does not go far enough–they are their land. For many Zimbabweans the blur between soul and land begins in this way: They are born, and then the umbilical cord is taken straight from the mother and planted in the earth so that it can take root and grow.
Pulling away from that ground causes some kind of death, a suffocation of exile. Deprive Zimbabweans of their land, and you deprive them of air, water, food.
And now that land has become a madman’s torture chamber.
What makes this horror something we will all have to live with one day is that we can hear the cries from Zimbabwe, and from her borders, and yet we do nothing. News reports and desperate letters from inside the country have been circulating around the Internet for months. In tone and in content they sound eerily similar to the letters and warnings we have heard from other hells on Earth: Darfur; Bosnia; Cambodia; Nazi Germany; Rwanda– before that awful April in 1994.
In October, Dr. Hans-Gert Pöttering, President of the European Parliament, issued this unequivocal warning, “If we do not act, we will have the lives of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people on our conscience. Did we not commit that Rwanda/Burundi must never happen again? However, this is exactly the situation the average Zimbabwean is experiencing right now.”
There will be an end to the crisis in Zimbabwe one day. Then we will count that country’s disappeared, her diseased, her displaced, her dead. We will ask, “How did this happen?”
But we already know how it happened. It happened because we stood by.
Alexandra Fuller grew up in Zimbabwe and neighboring southern African countries, an experience she recalls in her bestseller memoir “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood.” Her work has appeared in National Geographic Magazine, the New Yorker Magazine and Vogue, among others. She lives with her family in Wyoming, where the photo was made.
What you can do
On the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, today, we can all do a number of things to help make a difference.
Spread Alexandra Fuller’s “Crie de Cœur” virally so that people can be made aware of what’s going on in Zimbabwe.
Become an evangelist for the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Have you read them?
Support charities helping the people of Zimbabwe, but be careful! President Jimmy Carter has warned that the Zimbabwe government has confiscated charity money. Make sure your money is going to the right people. Try the major international charities like Oxfam and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Background Note: Zimbabwe (U.S. Department of State)
Statement by The Elders on the Zimbabwe crisis
Carter: African Leaders Must Pressure Mugabe (NPR interview audio file and story)
Desperation Up Close in Zimbabwe (CNN)
Rice: ‘We Ought To Call It As We See It’ (NPR interview audio file and story)
The Sound of Silence (Leading article in The Times, UK)
As Calls For Mugabe Departure Multiply, African Union Rules Out Use Of Force (Voice of America, with audio files)
Health system problems aggravate cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe (UN World Health Organization)
Alexandra Fuller (third from left) at home with her family in Zimbabwe circa 1980.
Both photos courtesy Alexandra Fuller/Map credit U.S. State Department