Mugabe spends millions on a war as AIDS kills 1,200 a week

 

The sickness started four months ago. Elizabeth Simango discovered an abscess on one breast, then came the aches and pains all over. Now, sitting on a dirty sack in a township outside Harare, she can barely walk.

Elizabeth is 25 but looks about 45. One side of her face is soft and swollen with herpes. The sun is shining but she wears a red wool hat to keep warm. Six of her eight siblings have already died of AIDS. And she will follow them soon, as will one of every four Zimbabweans that voted in the recent elections.

Zimbabwe is in the grip of a catastrophic AIDS pandemic. At current rates of infection, one in three Harare residents will contract the disease and a frightening 60 per cent of people in the border town of Beitbridge. According to the UN, a 15-year-old boy has more chance of catching AIDS that avoiding it.

"This is the biggest disaster the region has ever experienced," said Helen Jackson of SAFAIDS, an AIDS information agency for southern Africa.

President Mugabe's government has failed to even slow down the disease juggernaut. People like Elizabeth cannot even afford a bus fare to the hospital let alone the expensive, life-saving drugs that are the preserve of western victims.

So Zimbabweans are dying quickly - at least 1,200 people every week. Life expectancy has plummeted from 59 to 41 years in just one decade. And yet Mr Mugabe refuses to declare a national emergency.

But the President must also bear a more sinister responsibility. Hundreds of women are thought to have been raped in the violent run-up to the elections. The perpetrators were the government-sponsored war veterans and ZANU-PF thugs. Their victims have a dismally high chance of contracting HIV.

"It's like a death sentence," said Shari Eppel of the Amani Trust, which provides emergency kits of the morning-after pill and anti-retroviral drugs to victims. "Rapists are usually repeat offenders, so there is a very high risk of infection."

So far only a handful of cases have been reported but now that the violence appears to be subsiding many more are coming forward. "The numbers so far are tiny compared to what we are expecting. It could be 100, 500 or 1,000 - it's very hard to know at this stage," said Tony Wheeler of the Zimbabwean Human Rights NGO forum, which has been keeping a log of violent attacks.

Some reports suggest that women are being abducted by the war veterans and used for sex, Mr Wheeler said. Other reports show that rape has also been used as a tool of political intimidation.

Tonia Jowett (25), the niece of a senior farming official, was gang raped in front of her husband at their house five miles from Harare last April. Her sister, Laura Wiggins (18), was raped in the same attack and was repeatedly asked if she supported the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party.

Victims have been slow to come forward for help as the usual points of first contact - schools and hospitals - have themselves been subject to brutal intimidation. "A lot of women knew the hospitals were controlled by war veterans, and many others simply had no way into the towns," said Mr Wheeler.

Although Mr Mugabe can afford to spend an estimated £800,000 per day on his unpopular military adventure in distant Congo, AIDS sufferers get little or no treatment in state hospitals. Last year defence spending totalled $225 million - 50 per cent more than the entire health budget. During the same period at least 150 people died every day.

Faced with a desperate situation, some Zimbabweans are resorting to desperate measures. The belief that having sex with a virgin will cure HIV has currency in rural areas but ultimately serves to spread, not cure infection. And traditional healers are offering unorthodox treatments but at high prices. "Some are making a fortune from it," said Ms Jackson of SAFAIDS.

A handful of aid agencies and religious workers are desperately struggling to fill the vacuum left by state inertia.

Sister Margaret McAllen, from Co Galway, has been working with dying AIDS patients in Harare since 1983. She stands outside the Mashambanzou home and gently speaks with Lorraine Toga (11), a sweet girl whose hair is withering and who has to wear a pink gown and wool hat even under the midday sun. Lorraine has been sick for two years, most recently with tuberculosis, and complains that her legs are tired.

"She's doing well considering we almost lost her last week", whispers Sister Margaret as we walk away. The next minute a hearse pulls up and two men in dark jackets jump out. A group of women drift outside and start to sing for their friend, Pamela (21), as her shrouded corpse is carried out. They know any one of them could be next.

The hearse pulls off and everyone, including Sister Margaret, nonchalantly turns away and gets on with normal business. Because at Mashambanzou - and across Zimbabwe - death from AIDS has become part of normal business.

The annual world AIDS conference starts in Durban, in neighbouring South Africa, next week. It is a fitting venue given that sub-saharan Africa accounted for four million of the 5.4 million new cases of HIV infection last year.

The Zimbabwean government's first real admission of the scale of the problem was the imposition of a global 3 per cent AIDS levy on all taxpayers and companies at the beginning of this year. Since then, government has collected $7.5 million but not one penny has been spent.

The head of the AIDS council, Dr Gordon Chavunduka, told The Irish Times that the council expects to start disbursing its monies soon. He had reassurances from the government that the funds were not being diverted into, say propping up Zimbabwe's faltering currency or funding the Congo war. Those are promises that, after 20 years of misrule and little sign of help in sight, many Zimbabweans would find difficult to believe.

Sitting outside her Harare squat and quietly peeling an orange, Elizabeth Simango muses on the possibility of being cured of AIDS by western medicine. "We would be very grateful if those drugs were available to us. And at the same time I am happy for those in other countries who can live."

Specialists said yesterday they hoped a controversy over the cause of AIDS will be settled when South African President, Mr Thabo Mbeki, opens the international AIDS conference in Durban. Mr Mbeki's courtship of so-called AIDS dissidents, who deny that HIV exists or question whether it causes AIDS, has infuriated other scientists and overshadowed the 13th Annual AIDS Conference.