I am writing from Harare, Zimbabwe, where PHR is conducting a workshop for African medical students on Health, Human Rights, and Advocacy. When I went to Zimbabwe nearly a year ago, it was hard to believe that the situation could have gotten worse. What I have seen over the past week is utterly astounding.
At the airport and at the conference, I have noticed how skinny and frail the people were - much of the population is malnourished. The whole country is hungry. Their hunger is not simply for food however, but for justice. No one begs on the street, but everyone tells their story of the horrors they are living through.
PHR staff traveled to Zimbabwe thanks to a gift from The Open Society Institute (OSI) and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. The purpose of the trip was to train three dozen medical students from Harare and Bulawayo who had asked on our visit last year for us to return and train them how to become human rights leaders and activists. Together with our partner organization Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR), we decided to provide the training. If three dozen young men and women were eager to speak out and give voice to the incredible abuses in their country, how could we not respond?
When I got off the plane in Harare, I joined PHR President Len Rubenstein for a meeting with the United States Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Jim McGee. I was truly proud to meet this incredible man. Everyone in Zimbabwe - from the cab driver, the merchant, or the student - remarks about Ambassador McGee's outspoken voice for justice in a country where leadership has become synonymous with fraud, injustice, and torture. Ambassador McGee recounted a story of driving out into the field and being blockaded by the thugs of Zimbabwe strongman Robert Mugabe, even to the point of being threatened with torture. McGee boldly moved forward without stopping to observe and document the situation. He is recognized as a strong voice that has spoken up against the regime. He is determined to not be silent.
I joined the students for dinner and our four days together began. It has been a very special week for the students and for me. These young men and women live and study in the most deplorable situation:
- Ten medical students share a single textbook; since the school library has no light bulbs, the doors close at three in the afternoon.
- Many of their instructors have left the country, so training is difficult, and the government frequently closes the school.
- While Zimbabwe's medical schools were once the pride of Africa, the health system has collapsed and human rights violations have skyrocketed.
- Hospitals have no bandages; they use paper or plastic grocery bags to stop bleeding. Surgery is performed without anesthesia and without antibiotics.
- There is no running water in Harare's main hospital. Most of the windows were shattered, and pigeons fly through the halls, where patients lie on the floor with no food, substandard care, and little hope.
- A doctor makes $10 a month; nurses make $5. But the village health care worker, who in many villages is the sole provider, has no supplies, and she makes about 20 cents a week.
Yet I met the most courageous men and women, students who have the bravery to put themselves out there, where activism is punished by death but lack of activism is equally a sure death sentence.
Eight years ago, Dr. Frances Lovemore, an emergency medical doctor, started an organization called the Counseling Services Unit (CSU). In the months since the spring 2008 election, CSU has treated 6,000 victims of torture and documented the brutal deaths of 167 others. She won't stop. She shared with me her story - her arrest, her passion, and the stories of the people she lives to serve. After our meeting, during which the lights went out a few times, and the computers frequently failed, she said, "Enough talk". She took me down to the first floor and showed me a dark room in which three dozen people huddled, all beaten in the past few days for resisting Mugabe's regime.
I met people from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Lawyers for Human Rights, other health and service organizations, all of whom were brave, courageous, and increasingly tired and hungry.
Sometimes, when we say "Health is a human right," it sounds so vague and almost too theoretical to get your arms around. Here's something I saw that brings it all home. A sign on a windowless, collapsing hospital reads: "No one will be admitted unless it is dire. We have little staff and no medicine."
As I walked through the emergency room door with Dr. Douglas Gwatidzo, the president of ZADHR, we saw a young auto accident victim, lying on a mat with no bandages, no meds, just a nurse standing by his side, empty-handed. Douglas introduced himself to the security guard and explained that I was visiting from the US and he wanted to show me Harare's main hospital. Another patient, a young mother who couldn't have weighed 75 lbs, ran after Douglas for help. "Please, please," she cried. But how could he possibly help her, with no supplies?
When we left the hospital, I thanked the "Matron," a nurse who had worked there for 40 years. She held her stomach, and told me, "We are hungry, we have not had food in two days; our last meal was boiled greens."
Here there is much hunger of many kinds; hunger that can be fully satisfied only when health, dignity, and justice are advanced to meet the needs of the world's most vulnerable populations.
A. Frank Donaghue
Chief Executive Officer
Physicians for Human Rights