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UN Official Finds Living Conditions in Zimbabwe 'Extremely Serious'


A senior U.N. official just back from Zimbabwe says the country urgently needs aid to stem a sharp decline in living standards. The official estimates it will take decades to build new shelter for the 700,000 people displaced by the government's recent slum-destruction program.

U.N. humanitarian aid chief Jan Egeland says his five-day visit to Zimbabwe convinced him that conditions in the country are "extremely serious and getting worse".

Mr. Egeland's trip was considered a fence-mending mission after a U.N. report earlier this year condemned a government slum demolition campaign. The report, by U.N. special envoy Anna Tibaijuka, called the operation a "disastrous venture" that violated international law and created a grave humanitarian crisis.

More than six months after the bulldozers leveled the slums, Mr. Egeland said he saw former residents facing a "shelter crisis". "It's heartbreaking to meet victims of the eviction campaign who now are back in the same place, only in much worse shelter than the house that was bulldozed. We believe it was one of the worst things at the worst possible moment in Zimbabwe because the hundreds of thousands we say in good report by Anna Tibaijuka, that 700,000 people were directly affected. They may be out in the open or they are back in the same place like the old grandmother I met who showed the bricks of which her house was made of earlier, and she also showed the shack of plastic and branches in which she lives today."

Mr. Egeland says he told Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe the government bears at least partial responsibility for the country's severe shelter shortage. But he said Mr. Mugabe rejected the idea, saying the slum demolition campaign, known as Operation Murambatsvina, was part of an urban renewal project. "He denies there is a shelter crisis because of the Operation Murambatsvina, as its called, which I call an eviction campaign," he said.

The U.N. official said his talks with President Mugabe yielded progress on other issues, including streamlining the provision of food and other aid programs in an attempt to halt the decline in living standards. "I hope that we in the U.N. can contribute to breaking this vicious circle that has the Zimbabwean people locked in to declining standards of living. It's really a collapse when you see there was a more than 60 years life expectancy in the country, some 16 years ago, and today it is 32 or 33 years only," he said.

Mr. Mugabe agreed last week to allow the United Nations to provide food aid to three million people over the next year. Mr. Egeland said the government will also allow the world body to build 25-hundred semi-permanent shelters to house some of those evicted in the demolition campaign.