Image: Zimbabwe exodus
Denis Farrell  /  AP
Zimbabweans line up Tuesday at Home Affairs offices in Musina, South Africa, close to the Zimbabwean border, to seek refugee status.
updated 9/16/2008 3:53:44 PM ET 2008-09-16T19:53:44

A government power-sharing deal has not stopped the flow of Zimbabweans streaming into South Africa to escape the hunger and poverty wrought by runaway inflation in their homeland.

About 1,000 Zimbabweans seeking asylum formed a line that snaked across a packed-dirt parking lot Tuesday in this South African border town. Many had been waiting for days to file their applications.

Some said they feared President Robert Mugabe was still in a position to unleash violence on his enemies. Others said that while they found hope in the agreement signed Monday, they did not expect Zimbabwe's economic crisis to be quickly resolved.

Under the pact, Mugabe remains president and head of government. Morgan Tsvangirai is prime minister-designate and will head a new Council of Ministers responsible for forming government policies.

Observers worry that rather than resolution, the agreement heralds government paralysis.

'Some people are even dying'
In Musina, asylum seekers waited restlessly in a lot dotted with ash left over from the previous night's fires and strips of cardboard used as mattresses. Children gathered around a blackened paint pot balanced over a fire to await a breakfast of cornmeal porridge and milk.

Robin Mucheana reached South Africa on Saturday and was still waiting Tuesday to have his application processed.

For 15 years, Mucheana grew oranges, guavas, avocados and vegetables on a small farm in Chitungwiza, south of Harare. This year, with official inflation the highest in the world at 11 million percent, he could not afford seedlings, seeds or fertilizer. He and his wife resorted to selling vegetables on the streets, but were barely making enough to feed themselves and their three children.

"In the morning, you wake up with bread selling at 8 trillion (Zimbabwe dollars), at 5 in the evening you get it at 10 trillion. And tomorrow, again, new prices," he said. "The hunger is the main issue. Some people are even dying."

The International Red Cross estimates more than 2 million people are hungry in Zimbabwe, and that the number will rise to 5 million, about half the country's population, by year's end.

Desperate situation
Some aid groups estimate that in recent weeks as many as 6,000 Zimbabweans have been crossing into South Africa every day. Many go back within a few days carrying groceries and other essentials that are scarce at home.

But there has also been a spike in those seeking refugee status.

While most are men, more and more women and children were coming, said Alexis Moens, an official with Medecins Sans Frontieres, a humanitarian group that has been providing medical care for Zimbabweans and other immigrants in Musina.

"My feeling is that now more women and children are coming than before (because) the situation is getting a bit more desperate," she said.

High prices aren't the only reason Zimbabweans are struggling. The last harvest was poor, and Mugabe's government restricted the work of aid agencies in June, accusing them of siding with the opposition before a presidential runoff. The ban was lifted last month, but aid agencies say it takes time to gear up.

"People are eating berries, people are eating roots, people are eating anything they can get their hands on," said James McGee, the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe. "We're seeing it all over the country."

Violence subsides
McGee added the political violence that followed elections in March and sent many Zimbabweans fleeing across the border has subsided, but not completely disappeared. He said there were signs of tension in areas where the deaths of parliamentary candidates or other issues meant new votes would have to be held.

Tsvangirai defeated Mugabe in March presidential elections and his party also out-polled Mugabe's in parliamentary voting. But Tsvangirai did not win the simple majority needed to avoid a runoff. An onslaught of state-sponsored violence forced Tsvangirai to withdraw from the second election, and Mugabe was declared the winner in a vote widely denounced as a sham.

More than 100 Tsvangirai supporters were killed, thousands were beaten, and tens of thousands were forced from their homes.

Richard Zuza, a pastor in Zimbabwe's capital of Harare, said the agreement was a start. But he was also in line for asylum Tuesday, as he had been for four days. He was fearful of returning because he said new elections were being held in his area and he had been counseling his congregation not to vote for Mugabe's party.

He said he wanted details on the agreement, such as whether Tsvangirai's party or Mugabe's would get the ministries overseeing police and the army, two institutions accused of fomenting violence against Mugabe's opponents.

"If they don't give Mr. Tsvangirai those soldiers, I don't think anything can change," he said. "Mugabe must resign. Then everything will be all right."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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