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Reporter's notebook from Zimbabwe

Text by Alex DUVAL SMITH

Latest update : 2008-12-25

FRANCE 24 South Africa correspondent Alex Duval Smith is one of the only international journalists to regularly cross the border into Zimbabwe. She brings us these reports from the heart of the political and humanitarian turmoil.



Dec 7, Musina, on the South-African side of the border

We were not just in Musina to look at the overspill of the Zimbabwean cholera outbreak on South Africa, but also to organise our own logistics - including helpers, a vehicle and food for the trip across the border. For all journalists travel to Zimbabwe is complicated because President Robert Mugabe does not want us there. For FRANCE 24 there is the added challenge that we appear to have a  fair number of viewers there, thus heightening the risk of our being  recognised by the Central Intelligence Organisation. But for now we were still in South Africa, visiting Musina's hospital where a cholera camp has been set up on the lawn and new patients keep arriving every day from Zimbabwe. The South African authorities have laid on extra facilities since the cholera outbreak but it's still clear that this small, sleepy border town is completely overwhelmed by the influx of refugees, both sick and healthy.



To escape cholera, Zimbabweans flee to South Africa



Dec 8, beyond the border

Our travel companion, a Zimbabwean who often makes the journey, was useful as he is fluent in most languages of the region and knows the ground. In return for helping us, we gave him the use of our vehicle to deliver food to his family, living in a remote village 100 kilometres inside Zimbabwe. He wanted to take maize meal, oil, sugar and cash to his wife and children. He travels across to see them whenever he can. And when work - or a lack of funds - prevent him from doing so, he sends food across the border through a trusted network of friends. The Zimbabwean diaspora in South Africa is three, four or even five million strong and the country's people effectively depend on relatives abroad to be fed.


Life revolves around earning enough money to buy maize meal and cooking oil



Dec 13, travel by night

After a night drive and some technical trouble with our Volkswagen minibus - ranging from electrical challenges to regular bouts of unexpected descelaration due to dirty petrol - we arrived in Bulawayo. We had been lucky to have been travelling on a day when the roadblocks were few and far between. Bulawayo is Zimbabwe's second city - a small place with enormously wide avenues. According to locals, the width of the roads was determined by the British colonial powers who ordained that it should be possible to do a u- turn with a horse and cart on each of them. Once a grandiose colonial town, Bulawayo is now a quiet place, with under-stocked supermarkets and the long bank queues that have become customary in Zimbabwe since the advent of hyperinflation. The city has also been  bankrupt since January 2008 and as a result there is no rubbish collection, there are regular electrical power cuts and the city authorities no longer manage to buy enough chemicals to guarantee safe drinking water from the taps



The city of Bulawayo in the midst of a cholera epidemic



Dec 13, word of cholera in Bulawayo

The city's creaking sanitation has led to cholera cases, though the situation in Bulawayo is said to be better than in many more densely-populated areas of the country, such as Harare's sprawling township, Chitungwiza. Nevertheless, amid failing sanitation and a health service lacking staff, equipment and drugs, care for the sick is increasingly left to volunteer doctors and nurses who carry on working for practically no money.



An impromptu cholera clinic set up by an international aid group



Dec 12, Bulawayo, an MDC stronghold

The worldwide media coverage of the current health emergency is in danger of overshadowing a worrying new trend of human rights abuses. Jestina Mukoko, head of the Zimbabwe Peave Project, was abducted on December 3rd from her home in Norton, near Harare. Her 15-year-old son looked on in horror as his mother was dragged in her nightdress to an unmarked car by 15 armed men in civilian clothes. Jestina is one of 20 human rights activists and opposition militants who have disappeared in the past six weeks. Among them is a two-year-old child, taken with her mother, a member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.


Human rights activists are targeted by the regime



Dec 18, time to go home

The harrowing stories we heard in Zimbabwe made us want to stay longer and report on more. But the constraints on journalists in the country are such that we judged it better to head for the border with what tapes we had, than stay on and risk having them confiscated and be arrested ourselves. The number of roadblocks on the way back to South Africa made us wonder whether the CIO had got wind of our presence. But that did not stop our companion from asking us to stop the minibus to allow him to liberate a goat which had become entangled on the roadside. We crossed back into South Africa after waiting in a long tailback at Beitbridge - a crowded and chaotic border post which must currently be one of the busiest in the world.


Date created : 2008-12-18