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Cemeteries in Zimbabwe Reflect Gravity of Crisis


The cemeteries of Zimbabwe are filled these days with fresh graves, many of the smallest mounds covering some of what was the southern African nation's future. An opposition leader says the acres of freshly dug graves are evidence of the ruin President Robert Mugabe has left Zimbabwe. The World Health Organization blames the rising death rate on a combination of AIDS, food insecurity and poor health care. We again join a foreign journalist for a look inside a nation teetering on the edge of humanitarian collapse -- a reporter who must remain anonymous because independent reporting in Zimbabwe earns beatings and jail time, who files this undercover report from Bulawayo.

It is an hour before sunset in the city of Bulawayo and we are driving through Westpark Cemetery, situated on the edge of town.

Behind the wheel is a man we shall call William. His true identity, like mine, must be kept a secret for his own safety. William is a local mortician, a lucrative career in this part of the world, where the business of death is very profitable.

"Some people might say it is a political thing," says William. "The ruling government is not doing anything to help the people. They say they are helping, but according to the death rate, there is nothing they are doing."

A brisk winter wind rustles through the tall dead grass and dried flowers. Most of the graves, however, have hand-painted signs. They are decorated by rocks and wooden crosses. In this country, this is steady work.

The World Health Organization estimates that the crisis in Zimbabwe claims an average of about 3,500 lives each week. This has led to criticism of the Zimbabwean government and President Robert Mugabe, who will not allow the official figures to be released.

David Coltart is a Member of Parliament representing the opposition party in Zimbabwe. "Zimbabwe has this unique combination, and I say unique -- it's unprecedented in any country ever-- where you have a combination of a very high incidence of AIDS, the fastest declining economy in the world and very high levels of malnutrition," he says, "and its that convergence which has led Zimbabwe to have the world's lowest life expectancy."

Zimbabwe was once a nation that fed itself and the nations around it. Now many rely on western food aid to keep them from starving.

In the cemetery of fresh graves, there is not even enough room to walk between earthen mounds.

Then we turn the corner to the children's section. It is packed full of tiny graves, decorated with dead flowers and handwritten signs. One reads, "Baby of Sarah, June 13th to June 15th, 2007."

Sarah's baby was only two days old.

"The challenge for us in Zimbabwe," Coltart says, "is for the international community to recognize that this is now arguably the world's gravest humanitarian crisis. And it needs an appropriate response from the international community."

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