BEITBRIDGE BORDER POST, South Africa
South Africa is bracing for a mass exodus of cholera victims from Zimbabwe fleeing across the crocodile-infested Limpopo River in search of a doctor and enough food to keep them alive.
The journey is not easy. The Limpopo River is moving faster now, swollen with early summer rains near its headwaters 1,200 miles away.
Would-be exiles take a bus to the Zimbabwe side of the Beitbridge border post, but most have no papers, so they wait for nightfall to traverse the river by foot miles upstream from the bridge.
During the day crocodiles can be seen resting on the banks.
Clarence Musonza, 19, a trainee teacher who graduated from high school in 2006 with high marks in chemistry, math and English, speaks with the desperation common to those fleeing the regime of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.
Mr. Musonza made the crossing early Tuesday morning. He said he lost two relatives to cholera and fears that the worse is still to come.
“I left Harare on Sunday and the bus had to stop after a few hours because it ran out of [gasoline]. There is no fuel at garages, but the driver managed to buy some on the black market,” he said.
Zimbabwe declared a national emergency over a cholera epidemic and the collapse of its health care system, and state media reported the government is seeking more international help to pay for food and drugs to combat the crisis, according to an Associated Press report from the capital, Harare.
“Our central hospitals are literally not functioning,” Minister of Health David Parirenyatwa said Wednesday at a meeting of government and international aid officials, according to the state-run Herald newspaper.
South African officials estimate that at least a thousand people cross illegally each night. Exile groups say the number could be double that, or more.
Like most of his fellow refugees, Mr. Musonza is impossibly thin, with the veins on his arms standing out against the skin.
Distribution of food around Harare and other cities in Zimbabwe has collapsed, and a loaf of bread - often imported from South Africa and several days old - sells for $6. Vendors no longer accept local currency. The same loaf in South Africa costs the equivalent of 75 cents.
An estimated 3 million Zimbabweans already live in South Africa, a population that swelled in recent years as farming in Zimbabwe collapsed, hyperinflation made its currency worthless and now, lack of simple necessities such as soap threatens to unleash an epidemic of medieval magnitude.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that at least 14,000 people are ill with cholera in Zimbabwe. But privately, officials admit that the 750 reported deaths may be a fraction of the real number. Obtaining data from areas beyond the main cities is difficult.
In Musina, a town about 10 miles inside South Africa, a temporary hospital has been set up at the town fairgrounds to treat refugees arriving with cholera and dysentery.
South African Health Minister Barbara Hogan said she is worried about the strain on local health facilities. Similar fears buffet other nations that border Zimbabwe, namely Botswana and Mozambique, which also receive large numbers of refugees.
Matthew Cochrane, regional spokesman for the Red Cross in Johannesburg, told The Washington Times that the potential for a medical disaster in Zimbabwe was “on a scale we have not seen in southern Africa for some years.”
“The lack of running water and basic sanitation means that many people aren’t able to take even simple steps to protect themselves against the illness,” he said.
“The rains are late this year, but are expected over the next fortnight, at which time shallow wells and septic tanks will flood, with the high-density suburbs particularly at risk of further serious outbreaks.”
In Zimbabwean cities such as Harare and Bulawayo, running water that just five years ago was pure enough to drink from the tap, now flows intermittently and must be boiled before use.
Lack of funds and the world´s highest inflation rate has made it impossible for local authorities to repair pumps or treat the water with chlorine.
Health workers say that without water, residents have been unable to use flush toilets and instead relieve themselves in gullies, parks, under bridges and on any piece of unoccupied land that offers the slightest privacy.
It is feared that the coming rains will dilute the human waste into a deadly swill, rich in bacteria, that will spread cholera and dysentery across cities and towns.
Clinics have closed because there is no medicine, and most of the private pharmacies have empty shelves.
Mr. Cochrane said that while neighboring states could easily treat such an outbreak, in Zimbabwe people did not even have soap.
“In most countries, cholera is not a serious problem and the remedy centers on washing your hands and drinking lots of clean water to avoid dehydration,” he said.
“In Zimbabwe, there is no clean water - often no water of any kind in the taps - and all basic commodities, including soap, are scarce and usually sold in foreign currency,” he said.
In Washington, President Bush called on African leaders to pressure Mr. Mugabe, 84, into leaving office.
“As my administration has made clear, it is time for Robert Mugabe to go,” Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Bush said that, beyond humanitarian assistance, U.S. aid to the country would not resume until “a legitimate government has been formed that reflects the results of the March elections.”
Mr. Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front has ruled the country since 1980. The party lost elections in March to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, but Mr. Mugabe refused to hand over power.
Talks aimed at a coalition between the two parties have been deadlocked since September.
At the Beitbridge Border Post, Mr. Musonza said he plans to head to Musina and then another 400 miles to Johannesburg.
“At home people are dying and we know it is going to get worse,” he said. “I wanted to bring my mother, but my young brother is sick so she stayed to look after him. My uncle died last week and also his daughter.”