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Zimbabwe must be among the most difficult places in the world, where authorities have declared another national emergency after an outbreak of cholera. Just last week, the health ministry said the situation was under control. Cholera is symptomatic of the general collapse of infrastructure in Zimbabwe, including the breakdown of the public health system. The U.N. has reported nearly 600 deaths and almost 13,000 people infected with cholera, which has spread across Zimbabwe's borders. And this comes as Zimbabwe's political leaders fight over power and its people go hungry. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.

(Soundbite of woman crying)

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: The anguished wailing of a young widow rises above plaintive voices as a funeral procession winds its way slowly up a mountain path.

(Soundbite of mourners singing)

QUIST-ARCTON: The mourners are heading towards a spot high on the hill, shaded by matamba trees and giant boulders. It's a burial ground for this community near Goromonzi in Zimbabwe.

(Soundbite of mourners singing)

QUIST-ARCTON: They've lost a young man to cholera. Twenty-nine-year-old Tendai Roki was the breadwinner for his family. He was back home in Zimbabwe on a visit from South Africa where he worked as a driver. His mother-in-law, Winnie Umire, said Roki had only been home a couple of days in the capital, Harare, with his wife, Prisca, and their six-year-old daughter when tragedy struck.

Ms. WINNIE UMIRE: My daughter's husband is dead. He was attacked with cholera.

QUIST-ARCTON: Cholera.

Ms. UMIRE: For some hours, three hours, more than four hours - that's what attacked him. Now I don't know what to do. So we'll see what God will make us to do. It's very hard for us. We don't know what to do now because he was arranging to take his wife to go to South Africa.

(Soundbite of mourners singing)

QUIST-ARCTON: Tendai Roki is one of hundreds of people who have died from cholera in Zimbabwe since August. Belatedly, the authorities declared a national emergency Thursday and appealed for outside help to tackle the disease. Yet the taps were turned off in Harare this week in a city already blighted by electricity and water shortages. They'd run out of water treatment chemicals.

Zimbabwe is a country where sanitation, sewerage, and access to clean water are the casualties of crumbling infrastructure, an economy on the skids, and spiraling inflation. So along with the cholera, the rats have moved in, and with them, the prospect of more disease. America's ambassador to Zimbabwe, James McGee, says the entire public health sector has been compromised.

Ambassador JAMES MCGEE (U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe): The health system has totally collapsed. The three major hospitals here in Harare have closed. They've closed their doors for patients. We have anecdotal stories of clinics in the countryside being unable to operate. People are routinely turned away from clinics. And in some places, police have been stationed outside of clinics to ensure that no one can enter the premises. Doctors and nurses are not being paid. So that's the reality of the situation on the ground here in Zimbabwe on this health system.

(Soundbite of health workers protesting)

QUIST-ARCTON: Hundreds of doctors, nurses, and other health workers attempted to organize another protest in Harare Wednesday to march against the spread of cholera, the deepening economic crisis, and their miserable pay and working conditions. Earlier, they'd downed tools and gone on strike, but their march was broken up by riot police who used batons to charge into the protestors. The vice president of Zimbabwe's Junior Doctors' Association, Dr. Malvern Nyamutora, said the authorities had done precious little to help them.

Dr. MALVERN NYAMUTORA (Vice President, Junior Doctors' Association, Zimbabwe): The government is completely ignoring us. With the way they are responding, they haven't addressed any of our issues, they haven't addressed why the people are dying. And I am actually wondering who they are going to rule if everyone is dead in Zimbabwe, because people are dying each and every day in numbers. So we are appealing to the international community, whoever can help us, to come in and try to assist. This is a crisis. People are dying. Please.

QUIST-ARCTON: Gift Phiri, chief reporter at The Zimbabwean newspaper, has witnessed the cholera crisis close up.

Mr. GIFT PHIRI (Reporter, The Zimbabwean): I can tell you, the disaster is horrifyingly evident in the morgue at the hospital. It is stacked with dozens of bodies of the victims of cholera. The morgue is designed to hold 10 corpses. It held nearly twice that number, with victims in body bags. Trays in the morgue held more than one adult body along with tiny corpses of infants.

QUIST-ARCTON: Phiri says something urgent must be done.

Mr. PHIRI: There are many others who are dying at home. There are others who are getting to hospital a bit too late. It's a desperate situation, compounded with the raw sewage flowing in the streets. You know, kids playing in pools of sewage in the high-density suburbs.

QUIST-ARCTON: I've come to Zimbabwe's main teaching hospital, Harare Central, a neat collection of bungalow buildings framed by gorgeous bright red flame trees. But it's eerie here inside. There's not even a skeleton staff on duty. Many professionals have simply abandoned the health sector and left Zimbabwe. Here most wards are empty or have been closed down. Many blame the situation on the current political paralysis. Again U.S. Ambassador James McGee.

Ambassador MCGEE: We have a very, very bad situation. I don't see anything that's going to alleviate these problems until the government of Robert Mugabe starts to act in good faith and deal with the Morgan Tsvangirai MDC faction in a true manner.

QUIST-ARCTON: Washington's top diplomat in Zimbabwe was referring to the stalled power-sharing negotiations. They were supposed to lead to a unity government after a deal was signed back in September between President Mugabe and his political opponents. But as they struggle each day, Zimbabweans are no longer pinning their hopes on the politicians.

(Soundbite of mourners singing)

QUIST-ARCTON: Survival is the priority for most people, says Winnie Umire, the mother-in-law of the young man who died of cholera leaving behind his grieving wife and daughter. She spoke after Tendai Roki had been laid to rest high on a mountain.

Ms. UMIRE: We don't have everything, from water to food. How we survive like that, God knows. It's worse. It's getting worse now.

QUIST-ARCTON: Few Zimbabweans would disagree.

(Soundbite of mourners singing)

QUIST-ARCTON: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Harare.

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