Norwich professor concerned over state of Zimbabwe

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(Host) Few Vermonters take time to consider the political situation in Zimbabwe. But the African nation is of daily concern to one Central Vermont man.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) The situation in the African nation of Zimbabwe should be enough to get anyone’s attention.

The rate of inflation is 1,200%-by far the highest in the world. Unemployment stands at 70%.

As the country specialist for Zimbabwe for Amnesty International USA, Rollie Brucken constantly monitors human rights in Zimbabwe and helps draft his organization’s reports on the country. It’s a volunteer position. Brucken makes his living teaching at Norwich University.

Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980. Since then it’s been ruled by President Robert Mugabe.

Brucken was introduced to the country in 1990 when he spent six months studying there. He remembers a stunningly beautiful land with a promising future.

In April, he returned as an Amnesty International volunteer and saw how the country has changed.

(Brucken) “It was the breadbasket of southern Africa. Its economy was growing. It had a large industrial sector. That’s all been hollowed out. It’s amazing how dilapidated, depressing, seeing no senior citizens because the life expectancy there is 35.”

(Zind) Zimbabwe has the fourth highest AIDS rate in the world. Declining health care and lack of a secure food supply have led to the dramatic drop in life expectancy.

Politically, there is no independent judiciary. Observers say elections are manipulated and opposition figures are beaten and jailed. With tight government controls on the press, dissidents use short wave radio stations like this one in London to broadcast to the people of Zimbabwe.

(Voice on radio) “Good evening, Zimbabwe, and welcome to newsroom. ZCTU leaders brutally assaulted by police in Harare “

(Zind) Last year, the Mugabe government displaced hundreds of thousands of people by demolishing shanty towns around urban areas in a program called “Operation Restore Order”. Brucken says those displaced are among Zimbabwe’s poorest. They lack medical treatment and adequate food. The government has prevented humanitarian assistance from reaching them.

Brucken says there’s a link between political repression in Zimbabwe and the near famine conditions.

(Brucken) “If there was political openness, these individuals could advocate for different government policies that would not only respect their right to food, but also allow the government to facilitate economic planning by which they would enjoy more secure access to food.”

(Zind) Earlier this year Brucken met in South Africa with human rights defenders from Zimbabwe. He says they’re realistic about their expectations for political change. At the moment their greatest hope is that the situation won’t get worse.

He applauds the Bush administration for pressing for political change and improved human rights in Zimbabwe, but he says there’s little the U.S. can do directly to improve the situation.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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