Seeing the Depths of Hell in a Hungry Child's Eyes

10/16/2007 11:38 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Dear President Mugabe,

I am haunted by the current situation in your country. I am haunted by the hunger I see in a little girl's eyes. I met her in a rural village that I cannot list here, for fear of danger to many lives. I do not know this child's name. She had walked many miles with her grandmother and younger brother to thank my friend for her gift of blankets. I look into those deep, hollow eyes and see through to the depths of hell. I cannot look away, terrified as I am by this images being thrust at me.

I am haunted by my memories of your country -- one that I cannot stop thinking about . Yet, I am forced into silence. To speak brings interrogation, punishment, even death. I am followed by horrific images as unwanted as a stalker that follows me to the car wash or out to dinner. The voice cries out in my head. I feel so spoiled, so privileged, so American -- and yet, so helpless. The helplessness is the worst of all feelings, for I cannot assist these kids or alleviate their condition. I have seen young girls who have been raped and abused. A common occurrence in Zimbabwe brought about by men who seek to rid themselves from HIV/AIDS by raping young virgins. I have talked to a doctor, shook the hand of a man who talks about the rape of a one-day-old girl. The ignorance and apathy is incomprehensible.

I have also seen the unintended consequences of celebrity adoptions in Africa. Men are going to villages, taking advantage of those events, telling mothers that their daughters are going to be adopted by "celebrities" and "wealthy American families" -- and that they can now cease to worry. The men give families $100 dollars and take their daughters away. These unknowing children are raped first and sent into sexual slavery. A few children adopted, thousands put at risk. I cannot even speak these words aloud for fear of repercussions. I am a still a prisoner in Zimbabwe. A prison not of my own making but one that forces me to be silent against the daily atrocities in your country.

I can still smell the suffering and feel the tension throughout the air. Food is scarce, water is scarcer. Electricity is sporadic at best. Your country is on the verge of collapse. Yet denial plays like a cheap filmstrip upon your ugly back. A barrage of requests for media interviews come to my apartment. But the safety of my friends comes first. Haunted, hunted and trapped in hell. The Hell you have created.

You are a smart man, Mr. Mugabe. For I am one of many forced to be silent. I have never thought my world could be like this, but here I am. What can I do with this knowledge to save people? What harm will my attempts cause? What deaths and torture lay upon my actions? I exaggerate not.

You're clever in your torture methods. Don't feign ignorance because you know it is so. The first one is the old-fashioned beating. The beatings by your thugs with their hands and feet. I know of one man who survived a beating with a plank of wood covered in nails. He was thrown in the river to be eaten by the alligators. Even the alligators had some mercy and left his punctured body on the banks. The second kind of torture used is poisoning. This happens often in prisons. It is easy for you to hide this kind, for many people never come out from behind those bars. Who has money for autopsies there -- when there is no food to eat? Most people know the truth anyway, even if you make it illegal to say it. The last type of torture is electrical wires that touch against both sides of the victim's body. The body smells as it is slowly electrocuted. People will say anything when tortured.

I went to a party last weekend in a local neighborhood. It is an annual event hosted by good, decent people who are active in our community. The couple is in the midst of doing a remodel on their house yet still hosted the event. A large pig slowly turned on the roasting pit, waiting for its final crispness. In the midst of laughter and good food, I walked up the hill to the top of the driveway. I looked down at the guests who milled around the plates of food. The laughter floated up to me. There were some children that followed me up to where I sat on the cement. The kids via their imagination created little monsters that were gong to "eat us up." "Ah! Those tree-suckers are coming", said one child. He began to describe the one-eyed monsters to his companion. I got up to take them back to the party, as I could see they had begun to scare themselves into fear. A hot tub filled with fear that I am already soaking in.

I am surrounded by my own monsters now. Monsters that you have created and you can eliminate. My monster has eyes everywhere, and I cannot escape. Can you?

I got stuck in a cell in one of the many prisons in your country. A 5-by-5 holding cell that had one small bench. One woman lay sprawled on the wooden platform. She was asthmatic and clutched her inhaler close to her chest. There were a number of women there arrested for selling food on the street. Street vending is an illegal activity in Zimbabwe. Even so, the roads are littered with the site of makeshift tables displaying sale items. These women are aware of the law, but have no other way to feed their children. They sell items on the streets to feed their little ones, and hope not to get caught. Who will watch their children when they are caught? No one. They do get caught, and are arrested and incarcerated. They go before the courts and pay a fine -- if they have the money. I do not know what happens to them if they cannot pay the fine. I dare not ask.

I am grateful that I had the money. It allowed me to bribe every shift of guards while I was incarcerated. We avoided going up to the holding pen on the third floor. That floor was covered with feces and urine. Woman lay scattered across the floor barefoot. A prisoner must be barefoot in prison. It is the only way a guard can tell the prisoners from the guests. I step on the substance and it oozes through my big toe. I try not to gag.

We talked through the night and the women shared their stories. They came in all shapes and sizes but there stories were remarkably similar. Their tales depicted desperate mothers forced to break the law to feed their children. I had no answers for them. I wept when they told me their stories. A few of them asked me why I cried, and I explained that I wept for their suffering. They seemed puzzled by this. "This is our life", they explained, "Why do you cry for us?" They did not seem to comprehend my grief.

One woman had a series of photos that she clutched in her hands. She shared the photos with our group. The photos captured her after being severely beaten by her husband. Her face was so swollen and beaten that she was unrecognizable as the women who sat in front of me. Shocked, I asked "Why are you here" She said that her husband told the police that she stole something and they arrested her. She started to cry. I got angry.

Surely, we must be spoiled here. We complain so much as people, and don't take action. In America, we squander our rights. As a country we can't seem to even get the majority of our population out to vote. In Zimbabwe their rights are trampled on daily, yet they do not complain. They get beaten to a pulp by their spouses and thrown into jail with trumped up charges. They are silent. We complain, we yell, we fight and then we sit and stuff ourselves with a rib-eye steak. I am ashamed.

I think again of the young child in tattered clothing. Of her trying to cross her emaciated legs and sit down, when a plate of food is put in front of her. Her desire to gorge on the plate of food is palpable. I have lost my appetite. She grabs a potato with her hands and begins eating quickly. I watch her waiting for some sense of satisfaction, to light up her eyes, but it never comes.

I sign my name here.