Crouching low over the steering wheel, Chamu sneered and shook his head slowly as we drove past a building plastered with several dozen posters calling for Zimbabweans to support Robert Mugabe's drive to install himself for another six years as president.
"We did it in 1980, let's do it again!" the green-and-yellow election advertisements shouted. It was a reference to the role Mr. Mugabe and his ZANU-PF movement played 28 years ago in bringing about the end of white supremacist rule in this country.
Do what again, you had to wonder. Chamu kept shaking his head as we drove down nearly empty streets and past the deserted stores of his hometown in northern Zimbabwe. Gasoline cost too much for people to drive their cars. The store shelves were empty of all but a few expensive, imported products that the average Zimbabwean could not afford.
"There's nothing in Zimbabwe. As long as Mugabe rules, we will suffer," the 25-year-old tour guide scoffed. "And if we protest, they will squash us like mosquitoes. Like cockroaches. Human life means nothing to them."
Chamu was the first Zimbabwean I met, but it was an opinion I'd hear repeated over and over again during the week I spent reporting in Zimbabwe undercover.
Chamu isn't the tour guide's real name. Most of the names in this story have been changed. Publishing real names might earn those concerned a potentially fatal visit from the Central Intelligence Organization. Such are the stakes in Mr. Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Even identifying the town Chamu and I were driving through might endanger the few other foreign journalists still in the country - I left yesterday - since it would reveal the route some of us used to get in and report on last week's one-man "election."
My journey through the disaster that is modern Zimbabwe began as soon as I crossed into the country. Posing as a tourist - camera, binoculars and Indiana Jones hat at the ready - I entered overland and headed straight for one of the country's spectacular national parks.
I spent the first two days trying to do nothing an ordinary tourist wouldn't do, hiking through parks and photographing the carefree monkeys, baboons and hippos that were sometimes the only other creatures there. With most sensible tourists giving Zimbabwe a wide berth these days, I had some of the world's natural wonders almost completely to myself. At night, I'd retire to my room and surreptitiously e-mail what I could of the day's events using my BlackBerry.
Even while hiking deep in the parks, I couldn't escape the sensation that I was drifting through the wreckage of something potentially wonderful that had been destroyed by spectacular mismanagement and crude tyranny.
Early in my trip I met Matonga, a twenty-something young man who makes a meagre living trying to persuade tourists to part with their precious foreign currencies in exchange for cheesy stone trinkets that he insists are ethnic art.
We walked together down a dirt path, stepping over $250,000 Zimbabwean notes that were issued in December but are already worthless. There are $50-billion notes now in circulation, and even they aren't worth more than a few U.S. dollars each.
"There's no jobs, no life in Zimbabwe. I haven't had anything to eat for three days. If you don't believe me, just look at my shoes," Matonga says convincingly, lifting up his foot to reveal a white sneaker almost completely worn through at the sole.
The scope of Zimbabwe's economic disaster is mind-boggling. It's a place with 80-per-cent unemployment, incalculable inflation - some estimates put it near 5 million per cent - and a worthless currency.
The fight for power coloured everything. Even inside the park, the walking path was covered with leaflets urging voters to cast their ballots for Mr. Mugabe. Hundreds of them, covered in dirt and apparently unread, littered the ground in the park and the nearby tourist village.
Inside the same park, I encountered a trio of South African election observers who were supposed to be monitoring the campaign for the election, still four days away. After opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew from the presidential runoff, however, they decided that they may as well take in the sights, since there was no longer a real election to supervise. "Our jobs have been made redundant," one of them said.
After two days of keeping a low profile in the countryside, I met up with an American journalist who had also sneaked into the country, and we nervously made our way to the capital. We both understood well how high the stakes were. After Mr. Tsvangirai stunned the country by outpolling Mr. Mugabe in the March 29 first round of the election, the government began hunting for unaccredited foreign journalists who it was deemed were helping the Movement for Democratic Change's cause by exposing ZANU-PF's attempts to intimidate opposition supporters.
One journalist from The New York Times spent days in jail for what the authorities here refer to as "committing journalism." A British reporter was reportedly stripped and tortured for 38 hours.
My colleague and I anxiously rehearsed our cover story as we travelled toward Harare. We were going to a friend's wedding. It was on Saturday, the day after the election, and we'd come a few days early to see the city.
Fortunately, our journey into the city was surprisingly easy. Police and army roadblocks that had been set up around the country a few days before had been taken down. Speculation was that the authorities wanted to ensure the security services were in their bases in case there was trouble on election day.
When we reached Harare, we went straight to the first of two "safe houses" we would stay at during the week. Our contacts in the opposition warned us that Harare's hotels were being monitored by intelligence officers, so we couldn't stay in one without drawing unwanted attention.
The safe houses were essentially the homes of families who decided to risk their own safety to shelter a pair of foreign journalists. "We're glad you're here and we'll do whatever we can to help you," our first host told us as he and his family prepared a welcome dinner. He nonetheless sent his two sons to stay with friends, an unspoken acknowledgment of the danger the family faced.
We stayed up the first night watching the highlights of one of Mr. Mugabe's campaign rallies on Zimbabwean state television. Our hosts repeatedly broke into derisive laughter as Mr. Mugabe shook his fist and blamed Britain, the former colonial power here, for all of Zimbabwe's current ills.
My colleague and I surreptitiously sent our reports by satellite phone that night, pulling it inside whenever a government helicopter flew too low overhead.
The next day I got my first real taste of reporting in Zimbabwe. We met up with Nelson, a brave Zimbabwean journalist, at a café. Over lunch, he kept nervously peeking over his shoulder to make sure we were not being tailed by the Central Intelligence. He briefed us on the situation in the country while speaking only through his clasped hands. We were joined for lunch by another American journalist, who warned me to change my jacket. My North Face fleece, she said, made me look too much like a foreign journalist on the lam. Which is what I was.
That night, I "committed journalism" in the back of Nelson's car as we drove aimlessly about town at high speed. He had done some interviews on my behalf with people I couldn't meet myself because of my precarious situation, and I needed him to tell me what was said. Nowhere but the car was deemed safe enough to meet, and through the whole 40-minute drive, we kept looking behind us for signs that we might be being followed, making random last-minute turns whenever we felt a car had been behind us for a suspiciously long time.
The rest of the week went much the same way. After two days in one place, my American colleague and I switched safe houses. We gleaned what information we could about what was happening in the country using a shaky Internet connection and by doing interviews over roaming cellphones.
Our ability to do our jobs was badly restricted. Every time one of us proposed going somewhere or meeting someone, the other shot it down as too risky. Our best glimpse of life in Zimbabwe, a nation of poor billionaires, was gleaned from a trip to the Spar supermarket, an absurd world where a 600-gram box of Rice Krispies cost more than 819-billion Zimbabwean dollars, the equivalent that day of $51 (U.S.). A bag of Lay's potato chips sold for $109-billion ($6), while 300 grams of sliced cheese cost $212-billion ($20). Astonished - though we're far more affluent than most of the locals - we picked up only a few staples and forked out an incomprehensible $832-billion at the cash register.
One night, we tried to visit a local hospital to interview two MDC supporters who were recent victims of violence. They had been beaten and forced to swallow pesticides, a poison that killed one other member of their family. Along with a friendly retired doctor, we entered the hospital and walked briskly toward the trauma ward, me carrying a box of chocolates to present to the injured activist, whom we planned to tell anyone who asked was formerly the gardener of a friend of ours in Johannesburg. We agreed that if either of us sensed we're being watched, we'd use a code word to express that it was time to go.
However, the man we wanted to interview was in surgery when we got there and his mother's room had a police guard posted at the door who immediately asked what our business was. Sensing that we were pushing our luck, my colleague and I turned to each other and said "macaroni," almost in unison. Looking over our shoulders the entire way, we retreated back to the safe house.
Friday was election day so we decided that it was finally the moment to be as brave as we could. First we took a slow drive around town, driving past empty polling stations that were jarringly at odds with the pictures of long lineups of voters being shown on Zimbabwean state TV. The only sign of passionate political activity was some red graffiti outside a polling station at the University of Zimbabwe that read "Boycott! Morgan is our president!" Riot police with helmets and clubs - and others carrying assault rifles - were deployed throughout the centre of Harare.
Those who did vote were a lacklustre lot. A 25-year-old fruit salesman named Bernard Mucharo told us he'd been warned he needed to vote - and vote for President Mugabe - or he would lose his licence to set up a table in the main market. "It's not like I believe in what I've done. It's not about it being wrong or right to vote, but the question is what do I survive on if I lose that table?" he told us.
We waited until nightfall, when the darkness could somewhat conceal my white features, then drove out to the nearby township of Chitungwiza, an MDC stronghold in the March election that has been the scene of repeated violence since then and was the grudging locale for Mr. Mugabe's final campaign rally the day before. Driving in, it was not hard to spot the gangs of ZANU-PF youth gathered on street corners, many of them wearing the party's green and white colours.
We went to an MDC safe house in the township, where about 50 people were gathered for the night, women and children sleeping on the floors inside the house, men sleeping in the garden outside. Those inside were terrified. The house had been attacked 10 days before; ZANU-PF thugs chanted "you started a war, so this is a war" as they beat four MDC youths to death with iron bars.
One of the rooms that people were sleeping in was still blackened from a petrol bomb thrown during that attack, and everyone was worried the ZANU-PF men would return after the polls closed. Several had gone so far as to paint their fingers red - imitating the indelible ink voters were asked to dip their fingers in at polling stations - in hopes that it would spare them from violence. But one man and his wife refused to do so. Their 27-year-old son Archford Chipuyu was among those killed in the attack 10 days before. His body was driven 15 kilometres out of town and dumped in a field.
"I have nothing to fear, I've just lost my son," Mr. Chipuyu's mother, Anastasia, told me, her face expressionless and looking far more aged than her 43 years.
In the next room, an MDC campaign organizer named Tineyi Tashayi leaned on metal crutches, his face gaunt and unshaven. He said he'd been staying at the safe house - where meals of maize and vegetables are handed out once a day - since June 19, the day after his own home was attacked by ZANU-PF members who smashed his left leg with an iron bar.
He said the attack on him and Mr. Chipuyu, who was also an MDC activist, were part of an organized campaign to destroy the foot soldiers of the opposition movement, the people who had helped the party organize and prepare for the election.
"They come to my home every day looking for me. I can't go home, they really want my head," he told me. He sincerely believes the ZANU-PF will eventually catch him and finish the job. "As long as Mugabe rules, there is no way out. It's going to get worse."
The spectacular decline of Zimbabwe's economy has affected ordinary citizens in a variety of ways:
In 1987, inflation averaged 11.9 per cent. It surged to an official record of 164,900 per cent this February , but economists say the actual rate is at least 2 million per cent. A loaf of bread costs 150 times more now than during the first round of the presidential election on March 29.
The average life expectancy dropped to 40.9 years in 2005 from 63 years in 1990, according to United Nations figures.
The mortality rate for children under 5 was 76 deaths out of every 1,000 in 1990. It increased to 105 in 2006.
Four of every five Zimbabweans are unemployed and many are battling to stave off malnutrition amid chronic shortages of meat, bread and other food. Millions have fled, mostly to South Africa, in search of work and food.
The gross domestic product has contracted each year since 2000. The biggest decline was in 2003 when it fell 10.4 per cent. The International Monetary Fund estimates GDP will fall by 4.5 per cent this year.
Zimbabwe first fell into arrears with the IMF in August of 2001. This February, it owed $88-million, of which nearly $80-million had been in arrears for three years or more.
One U.S. dollar was worth $11-billion Zimbabwean dollars last week compared with $6-billion the previous week.
Once the breadbasket of southern Africa, Zimbabwe now needs to import maize. The UN agricultural production index for Zimbabwe fell to just over 74 in 2005 from nearly 107 in 2000.
Reuters News Service