THE AGONIES being inflicted on Zimbabwe by its corrupt and brutal president grow ever worse. Earlier this month, the government of Robert Mugabe ordered international aid agencies to halt the operations that have been keeping hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwe's people alive. With most of the country's population out of work and in dire poverty, the food and other humanitarian assistance provided by groups like CARE and Save the Children are more desperately needed than ever. By shutting them down, Mugabe and his henchmen have knowingly condemned countless vulnerable Zimbabweans to death.
Mugabe claims, preposterously, that the humanitarian agencies were trying "to cripple Zimbabwe's economy" and bring about "illegal regime change." Actually, it his own demented and dictatorial misrule that has destroyed the country, turning what was once a fruitful and prosperous land into the world's most rapidly collapsing economy. And it is his determination to cling to power by any means -- including starving and terrorizing voters who support a change in government -- that has filled Zimbabwe not just with hunger and sickness but with savagery and bloodshed as well.
Less than two weeks remain until the presidential election runoff between Mugabe, Zimbabwe's autocratic president for the last 28 years, and the popular opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who leads the Movement for Democratic Change. Tsvangirai and the MDC won the first round of elections in March, and supporters of Mugabe and his ZANU-PF ruling party have been waging a vicious campaign of intimidation and violence against them ever since.
Opposition rallies have been obstructed by police, and Tsvangirai has repeatedly been detained for hours at a time. On Thursday, the MDC's secretary general, Tendai Biti, was arrested and charged with treason. Thousands of opposition supporters have been attacked, arrested, or forced to flee for their lives. Homes have been torched; scores of people have been killed.
International aid workers say they were shut down to keep them from witnessing the government's increasingly lethal crackdown. The depravity of those attacks is suggested by UNICEF, which has said that 10,000 children have been driven from their homes by the violence, and that schools taken over by pro-government forces are being used as torture centers. Peter Osborne, in a dispatch from Zimbabwe for a British newspaper, The Mail on Sunday, itemizes some of the methods of abuse favored by Mugabe's men: pouring boiling plastic on victims' backs, burning their extremities, nearly drowning them in vats of water, and administering whippings violent enough to transform an adult's buttocks into a horrifying "mess of raw flesh."
The latest description of Zimbabwe's reign of terror comes from Human Rights Watch, which in a new report documents numerous cases of brutal repression by Mugabe supporters.
"ZANU-PF and its allies have . . . established torture camps and organized abusive 're-education' meetings around the country to compel MDC supporters into voting for Mugabe," the report says. Hundreds of voters have been flogged with sticks, whips, bicycle chains, and metal bars. In one "re-education" meeting May 5, "ZANU-PF officials and 'war veterans' beat six men to death and tortured another 70 men and women, including a 76-year-old woman publicly thrashed in front of assembled villagers."
In other meetings, military officers have threatened to kill anyone who votes for the opposition. "Each villager would be given a bullet to hold in their hands. Then a soldier would say, 'If you vote for MDC in the presidential runoff election, you have seen the bullets, we have enough for each one of you, so beware.' "
We must assume that Mugabe's savage onslaught is likely to achieve its goal. Faced with starvation, dispossession, and threats of revenge, how many Zimbabweans will muster the courage to stand against him?
But why do the rest of us do nothing? Why is the free world so indifferent to the enormities committed by Mugabe and his bullies? Where are the worldwide demonstrations outside Zimbabwe's embassies? Where are the international boycotts, the UN resolutions, the presidential and papal condemnations? Where is the International Criminal Court indictment of Mugabe for his long career of murder, torture, and other crimes against humanity?
Let us be honest: If the people of Zimbabwe were being terrorized by a white despot -- if it were a white ruling party whose goons were beating them and burning their homes -- the whole world would be aroused on their behalf. Surely they deserve no less just because their oppressor is black.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)