Monday, December 22, 2008

Zimbabwe prison guards stealing prisoner food to stay alive

Zimbabwe's highways are littered with police checkpoints, which is discomforting for foreign journalists working there illegally. But they are simply a pretext for extracting food or money from drivers.

“What are we having for Christmas?”, one policeman asked The Times. “I'm hungry,” another said bluntly. A third threatened to issue me with a ticket for stopping a yard past the point where he was standing. He then said that my companions - hitch hikers - were “unlawful passengers”. Eventually he backed down, but a black driver would have had to pay.

More alarming was when I was flagged down by two police officers near Bulawayo, prompting visions of Christmas in a lice-infested Zimbabwean prison. But they just wanted a lift.

In the car they raged against President Mugabe's regime. The senior one, a sergeant of five years' standing, claimed that his monthly salary did not buy even a litre of cooking oil. His work was merely “community service”. He said that he felt sympathy for the suffering of ordinary people, and that if they rebelled he would not fire on them.

Another passenger was a warden at Bulawayo's infamous Khami prison. The previous month he had earned 200 million Zimbabwean dollars - less than US$1 at today's rate. Of that sum he could withdraw only a fraction after queueing for four hours at the bank each morning. Every day and a bit, its value halved.

He said that he had five children to support and had not eaten bread for a year. He survived by stealing the prisoners' sadza - a porridge that is now a luxury for most - or by trading favours for food brought in by families. “There's no discipline ... We depend on the prisoners to stay alive.”

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Martin Fletcher in Harare

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