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Saturday 5 October 2019

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FILE - Doctors and medical staff march to Zimbabwe's Parliament, Sept. 19, 2019, in Harare demanding the safe return of Peter Magombeyi, whom protesters believe was taken because of his role organizing strikes to demand better pay and working conditions.

A month into a strike by doctors in the country’s public hospitals, Rudo Mbofana can’t find relief from her constant back pain — or her frustration.

The Harare resident said she had been referred to Parirenyatwa General Hospital, the capital’s largest medical center, “but there is no help. We are just gathering here in pain, in shame and in agony.”

An untold number of Zimbabweans have been turned away from public medical facilities since September 3, when just more than 500 junior doctors, paid less than $200 a month, went on strike, demanding better wages as well as equipment and supplies for treating patients.

Hundreds of senior doctors with the same complaints joined the strike Thursday, further diminishing treatment options in the southern African country of 14 million.

Government offer rejected

On Friday, labor groups representing the doctors rejected the government’s offer of a 60% salary increase. It would have been paid in Zimbabwe’s devalued currency and not the U.S. dollars that the doctors sought.

“They’re asking the government to match their salaries with what they were earning” before the country’s economic collapse, explained Dr. Fortune Nyamande, spokesman for the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights. His group does not represent labor nor is it involved in negotiations, but Nyamande was apprised of Friday’s developments.

The government has threatened to withhold the pay of striking doctors. Dr. Paulinus Sikosana, chairman of its Health Services Board, said it won’t pay someone who won’t work.

The World Health Organization’s representative to Zimbabwe, Dr. Alex Gasasira, encouraged negotiations between the striking doctors and the government.

“We hear that many patients are being turned away, some of them with very serious conditions,” Gasasira said in a phone interview. “So we are concerned that the most vulnerable people … would not be able to access the services that they would require.”

An ailing health system

The strike has paralyzed the public health system.

“We know that something terrible is happening. We are hearing of pregnant women dying, victims of road traffic accidents dying,” Nyamande said, adding that he doubts the accuracy of government statistics on health and mortality.

Zimbabweans such as Mbofana gauge the health system based on personal experience.

Her back hurts and her prospects are poor. Turned away from public health care, “I was advised to go and seek treatment from private clinics or surgeons,” Mbofana said. “But how do I raise the money?”

Patients admitted into public hospitals before the strike have no guarantee of quality care, either, given gaps in staffing and shortages of medical equipment, such as diagnostic tools, surgical gloves and pain medicine.

A woman who identified herself only as Kukuwe said her sister’s health is worsening while at Parirenyatwa.

“No doctors are coming to see patients,” Kukuwe said. “The patients are stranded and are not receiving help because there are no doctors to write prescriptions.”

Doctor in care

Senior doctors last month had joined their junior counterparts in demonstrating for the release of Peter Magombeyi, who had led the strike as acting president of the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association. He allegedly had been abducted from his home Sept. 14, resurfacing several days later outside of Harare, dazed and in pain. He initially told VOA in a phone interview that he remembered “being electrocuted at some point.”

The group Human Rights Watch says it has confirmed at least 50 abductions of activists and government critics so far this year.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration and Zimbabwe police have denied any involvement in Magombeyi’s disappearance.

Zimbabwe police had blocked Magombeyi from leaving a Harare private hospital but ultimately heeded a high court’s order to allow the doctor to seek care in South Africa. He reportedly is being treated at an undisclosed medical facility there.

Rutendo Mawere reported for VOA’s English to Africa Service from Harare. Gibbs Dube of VOA’s Zimbabwe Service reported from Washington.

FILE - A smoke plume rises in Tajoura, south of the Libyan capital Tripoli, June 29, 2019, following a reported airstrike.

As many as 35 Russian mercenaries are reported to have been killed in Libya while they were fighting for Khalifa Haftar, the military general most associated with the rule of the late leader Muammar Gaddafi, who launched an offensive earlier this year on the Libyan capital of Tripoli, home to the country’s internationally-recognized government, according to a Russian media.

The mercenaries are thought to work for the Wagner Group, a military contractor run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman nicknamed Putin’s Chef because he holds lucrative Kremlin catering contracts.

Asked by VOA about the reports of the fatalities in an airstrike on the outskirts of Tripoli, where Haftar’s forces have been bogged down for months, Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, said she had “no detailed information” and suggested directing questions to Russia’s defense ministry.

The spokeswoman later dismissed any notion the mercenaries are Kremlin-linked, saying there’s little Russia can legally do to prevent “private Russian citizens from acting as bodyguards overseas.” She added, “If Russian citizens get into trouble, our diplomatic missions can provide support for them.”

Meduza, an independent investigative website, reported Thursday that up to 35 Wagner Group fighters were killed last month when an airstrike targeted them. The website, which has headquarters outside Russia and is currently under investigation by a Russian parliamentary commission for violating Russian censorship laws, quoted sources within the Wagner Group and Russian veterans saying the dead fighters mainly came from the Krasnodar, Sverdlovsk, and Murmansk regions of Russia.

Some had fought previously in the Donbas, the eastern Ukraine region, where a five-year conflict has left more than 13,000 dead.

Meduza interviewed the partner of one of the men believed to have been killed. Mother-of-one Oksana Chumakova said she’d not heard from her husband, Artyom Nevyantsev, but added he was away on a classified trip. “I don’t know where he is,” she said in a voice message to the news-site, with rising anxiety.

Nevyantsev, a 38-year-old Yekaterinburg native and a veteran of the Second Chechen War, was listed by Ukrainian authorities as having been active in 2014 fighting alongside pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas.

One of the veterans quoted by Meduza subsequently denied having talked to the news outlet after the story was posted.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group, was indicted last year by U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller for overseeing a troll factory that led Russian meddling in U.S. elections. Prigozhin mocked the Mueller indictment, telling the Russian state news agency Ria Novosti, “The Americans are very impressionable people; they see what they want to see. I have a lot of respect for them. I am not upset at all that I ended up on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”

Since the indictment, Prigozhin has emerged as a key figure in what analysts say is a wide-ranging Kremlin influence operation aimed at boosting Russian clout in Africa at the expense of Western powers.

According to documents published in June by an investigative unit funded by Mikhail Khodorkovksy, an exiled critic of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Prigozhin is the go-to oligarch for Moscow’s ambition to turn sub-Saharan and North Africa into a strategic hub and to reduce Western influence. The documents, internal communications shared between Prigozhin’s employees, outline what Wagner has accomplished and plans to do in 13 African states, including the Central African Republic, Madagascar, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Libya and South Africa.

The St. Petersburg-based Prigozhin has denied in the past the existence of the Wagner Group, but both were sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2016 for supporting pro-Moscow separatists in the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region.

The Treasury Department said Prigozhin provided extensive support to the separatists, including constructing a military base near Ukraine for Russian troops to use for deployments. Some Russian opposition leaders and independent military analysts suspect Wagner is a disguised unit of Russia’s defense ministry, allowing the Kremlin to deny involvement and to minimize official military death tolls.

Western intelligence and military officials estimate that several hundred Russian soldiers are now present in Libya, providing the self-styled Field Marshal Haftar with logistical support and artillery as well as operating military drones. Libyan government troops posted video of possessions said to belong to the Russian mercenaries killed in last month’s airstrike, including a bank card belonging to Vadim Bekshenev, an alleged Wagner platoon commander.

As the Libyan conflict rages, more foreign actors are being drawn into the fighting between the U.N.-recognized government of Fayez al-Sarraj and forces loyal to Haftar, who has the backing of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as Russia.

In New York last week for the U.N. General Assembly’s annual meeting, Sarraj told The Washington Post on Friday, “We ask the United States, if it believes in a political solution, to stop these countries from providing [Haftar] the money, the equipment and the weapons that has enabled him to continue.”

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