United Nations humanitarian relief coordinator Jan Egeland returned from Zimbabwe to U.N. headquarters Thursday and reported progress with Harare on expanding food relief and AIDS care, but was unable to convince officials including President Robert Mugabe to let the U.N. set up tents to shelter thousands of displaced people.
“The humanitarian situation in the country is serious, and it is worsening as we speak,” Mr. Egeland told the U.N. press corps. “It is heartbreaking to meet with AIDS orphans – there are a million of those today in Zimbabwe. It is heartbreaking to meet people who are fearing the future because of food insecurity which is affecting the majority of the people – prices are spiraling…as food is becoming increasingly scarce.”
His message to Harare was,"Help me help you help your people,” said Mr. Egeland of his talks with the president and other officials. He cited progress on the distribution of food and outreach to those living with HIV and AIDS, and on reducing bureaucratic obstacles which have serious hindered humanitarian workers in the country.
“We want now to try to have a one-stop shop on the government side, a one-stop shop within (the U.N.) on the humanitarian side for the nongovernmental organizations and others who have had many obstacles in their work in the country,” he said.
But he was unable to convince the government to reverse its stance against erecting tents as temporary shelter for the many thousands left homeless by the demolition of shantytowns and other structures deemed illegal from late May onward.
“It is incomprehensible that they tore down tents which we put up in October,” he said. "We hope now we should be able to work more freely in lifting shelter standards as and when we can.” But Mr. Mugabe was “very against tents,” and officials generally “believe that tents give an impression that there is a crisis in the country.”
“I tried to explain that we use tents in Europe, we use (them) in North America, we use (them) all over Asia, and it is the first stage in a three-stage shelter program,” moving on to pre-fabricated temporary shelters and in time to permanent construction. But he said that at the current rate, this progression could take “decades” in Zimbabwe.
Despite having issued tough statements to journalists on his way back to the U.N. – London’s Guardian newspaper quoted him as saying the Harare officials responsible for the demolition campaign should face criminal prosecution – Mr. Egeland took a relatively diplomatic tack in his briefing to the international press in New York.
U.N. sources said Mr. Egeland was to brief the Security Council on Dec. 19 and make recommendations which could include sanctions if Harare should continue to obstruct international efforts to relieve Zimbabwe's millions of homeless and hungry.