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    Thursday, July 3, 2008

    Off-topic: me in Zimbabwe

    Just a quick post to highlight a recent undercover trip I took to Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe that partially explains why this blog has been so quiet lately...


    Surreptitiously 'committing journalism' amid fear, terror and economic ruin

    MARK MacKINNON, Harare

    Crouching low over the steering wheel, Chamu sneered and shook his head slowly as we drove past a building plastered with several dozen posters calling for Zimbabweans to support Robert Mugabe's drive to install himself for another six years as president.

    "We did it in 1980, let's do it again!" the green-and-yellow election advertisements shouted. It was a reference to the role Mr. Mugabe and his ZANU-PF movement played 28 years ago in bringing about the end of white supremacist rule in this country.

    Do what again, you had to wonder. Chamu kept shaking his head as we drove down nearly empty streets and past the deserted stores of his hometown in northern Zimbabwe. Gasoline cost too much for people to drive their cars. The store shelves were empty of all but a few expensive, imported products that the average Zimbabwean could not afford.

    "There's nothing in Zimbabwe. As long as Mugabe rules, we will suffer," the 25-year-old tour guide scoffed. "And if we protest, they will squash us like mosquitoes. Like cockroaches. Human life means nothing to them."

    Chamu was the first Zimbabwean I met, but it was an opinion I'd hear repeated over and over again during the week I spent reporting in Zimbabwe undercover.

    Chamu isn't the tour guide's real name. Most of the names in this story have been changed. Publishing real names might earn those concerned a potentially fatal visit from the Central Intelligence Organization. Such are the stakes in Mr. Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Even identifying the town Chamu and I were driving through might endanger the few other foreign journalists still in the country - I left yesterday - since it would reveal the route some of us used to get in and report on last week's one-man "election."

    My journey through the disaster that is modern Zimbabwe began as soon as I crossed into the country. Posing as a tourist - camera, binoculars and Indiana Jones hat at the ready - I entered overland and headed straight for one of the country's spectacular national parks.

    I spent the first two days trying to do nothing an ordinary tourist wouldn't do, hiking through parks and photographing the carefree monkeys, baboons and hippos that were sometimes the only other creatures there. With most sensible tourists giving Zimbabwe a wide berth these days, I had some of the world's natural wonders almost completely to myself. At night, I'd retire to my room and surreptitiously e-mail what I could of the day's events using my BlackBerry.

    Even while hiking deep in the parks, I couldn't escape the sensation that I was drifting through the wreckage of something potentially wonderful that had been destroyed by spectacular mismanagement and crude tyranny.

    You can read the rest of the story here at The Globe and Mail website.

    Radio Canada International interviewed me yesterday about the trip and why and how I did it. You can listen to the conversation my conversation with journalist Levon Sevunts here.