The ravages of drought are evident to anyone traveling through Zimbabwe. The carcass of a dead donkey lies on the road, while skeletal dogs tear at its intestines. The majestic Save River, once deep enough for hippos to wallow in, can now be crossed by foot. Government estates, however, are green with winter wheat and maize, irrigated by reservoir water. In contrast, privately owned commercial farms, which should have provided about a third of Zimbabwe’s maize, have melted into the surrounding dry bush. Food aid from abroad must now make up for these lost harvests.

Famine anywhere is a tragedy, but when it is caused by a country’s government it is an unspeakable crime. This is what makes the starving millions in Zimbabwe different from those in other Southern African countries enduring famine. Zimbabwe used to be the breadbasket of the region. President Robert Mugabe’s chaotic land-reform policies and the widespread illegal farm invasions he encouraged make the government partly responsible for the famine, which it is now exploiting for its own survival. To give food aid in a politicized environment is complicated; it is the ultimate political weapon, and something the government needs to control at all costs to maintain its position.

Mealie-meal is the staple food of Zimbabwe. A white powder made from ground maize, it is used to make a thick porridge called sadza. Maize is becoming increasingly rare. In the capital, Harare, a seething mass of people queuing for maize can easily be mistaken for a riot. The main way of getting mealie-meal in Zimbabwe is through the government-controlled Grain Marketing Board, where maize can be bought at controlled prices. The government, conveniently, has kept a monopoly on importing maize, and very few import licenses have been granted to nongovernmental organizations. Anyone who supports the political opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), or anyone who does not support Mugabe’s ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), is not sold food.

Felix (who doesn’t want to use his last name for fear of retribution) is typical of people who have been unable to get mealie-meal because they don’t have party cards. Although he works as a gardener in one of Harare’s affluent suburbs and earns above the average wage, Felix’s children recently went for three days without food. “You know, to get mealie-meal in Zimbabwe it is now very tough,” Felix says. “To get it you first have to get a ZANU-PF card. But even at the Grain Marketing Board, people are not getting maize, so people are dying of hunger.”

The second way of getting food is by registering in a government “food for work” program. Traditionally, in times of drought, families with no harvest and no money to purchase food perform public labor–for example, repairing rural roads–in return for food. In many instances MDC supporters have not been allowed to register for food-for-work programs.

There is also a third way of getting food, which is from international food aid programs. The largest such program is the United Nations World Food Program, which contracts with local organizations to distribute its food aid. The catch is that NGOs used by the WFP need to be registered by the Zimbabwean government.

Christian Care, one of the NGOs that give out WFP food, reluctantly agreed to let me travel with them to food distribution points. Courage Chirove, a refreshingly down-to-earth aid worker, drives me to the village of Rimai. Hidden among bushes and trees, it is miles away from a paved road, not to mention a town. When we arrive, people are patiently waiting for food to be distributed. Some of the women have walked four miles; they will walk back the same way, gracefully balancing kilos of maize and beans on their heads, and with children tied around their waists. The signs of malnutrition are beginning to be visible in the children in the waiting crowd. Their bellies beneath ragged T-shirts are slightly distended; their twiglike arms are shrinking to bone. Their eyes are large in their faces. When asked, most of the children say they eat just one meal of sadza a day.

Food in Rimai is kept in the schoolhouse, the only concrete building in the area big enough to store the hundreds of WFP maize bags. There’s not enough food for everyone, so there are registers of those most in need: orphans, widows, pregnant women and child-headed households. The WFP believes it is important to involve the community in giving out food aid, so the registers are compiled by community leaders. However, in such a politicized environment as Zimbabwe, this may not be such a good idea. Community leaders with political affiliations are able to manipulate the registers. This is likely to happen in places like Rimai, where many villagers support the opposition but where ZANU-PF officials are in charge.

The headmaster of Rimai is a community leader. A slight man with an unctuous smile, he welcomes me into his office. Behind him is a ZANU-PF poster for the 2002 elections, showing how to vote by neatly ticking the box that says ZANU-PF. On another wall a framed portrait of Mugabe takes pride of place. Posters like these are not supposed to be around any of the food distribution points. As one WFP worker told me, there are many ways to intimidate people.

It is hard to ask questions in Zimbabwe. People are afraid to answer and are suspicious of those who ask them. The headmaster follows me around as I try to talk to people. He assures me that all the food distribution has been fair. Later, however, a Christian Care worker admits to me that there have been political problems with the registers. She hastens to add that now the registers are in order. Maybe.

“In Rimai,” says Chirove, “there are war veterans on the committee. The government uses war veterans badly, but we have only had a problem with the ones who are partisan.” The people who fought in Zimbabwe’s liberation war have traditionally been supporters of Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party. In 1997 the veterans, incensed at the wealth that politicians had amassed for themselves while they remained in poverty, demanded money and later land. The government acquiesced in their wishes, and began its chaotic land-reform program. The war vets have since been seen as instruments of Mugabe’s policies to cleanse the land of white farmers.

While I am in Rimai, Chirove goes to a village meeting to get people to revise their registers. After he picks me up, and once we are in the privacy of the car, he tells me that war veterans and the CIO (the Central Intelligence Organization, Zimbabwe’s feared secret police) invited themselves along to the meeting. The war vets and CIO claimed that Christian Care is acting as an agent of the opposition. They said that posters with the MDC logo, an open hand, were found in the bags of maize being distributed. This allegation is pure fiction. All the blue-and-white WFP bags are sealed. “That this is not government food had incensed people,” says Chirove. “The war vets said to withdraw the statement by one of the staff that the food aid had nothing to do with the government, and that Christian Care should not tamper with the registers. The police said some of the statements might lead to violence.” Chirove says he eventually managed to placate the war vets, telling them, “The WFP is a branch of the UN. Zimbabwe is a member of the UN, and that’s why we’re getting help.”

Weeks later, Christian Care admits to me that one of its program administrators was kidnapped by war veterans and held overnight, but quickly insists that it has had no further problems with the vets. Although problems are meant to be reported to the WFP, one WFP worker is surprised when I tell her about the efforts to intimidate Christian Care personnel.

Christian Care is not the only NGO that has been experiencing problems distributing aid. Care International in the Chivi District and in Mberengwa East have received complaints that their registers favor supporters of Mugabe’s regime. Although NGOs have shown a willingness to intervene when problems arise, human rights organizations say that generally problems are not reported.

The World Food Program is in a difficult position. It has to be invited into a country and work with that country’s government. Like all UN organizations, it bends over backward to be seen as impartial. The situation in Zimbabwe once again raises the issue of whether this policy of impartiality can fairly be seen as going along with government policy, which in this case is discriminatory. Some organizations, like the Catholic Commission, suspended their feeding programs, refusing to allow war vets or the government to tell them whom they can or can’t feed. But for a humanitarian organization to withdraw aid is especially repugnant. In Chirove’s opinion, “If you withdraw aid, the person who caused the problem doesn’t suffer.”

Back in Rimai, food distribution goes on all day. Women energetically check registers and weigh food under the parching sun. Some WFP bags of food are missing, and a group of leaders argue about what to do. Who should be given less food? In the middle of this debate a man taps me discreetly on the shoulder. “Sister, you are wanted,” he says. I follow him into an empty classroom where I am presented with a plate of food and a miraculous glass of water. On the plate is a mound of sadza and some dubious meat. This is more food that most of the people here will eat in two days. But a guest is sacred, and according to the dictates of hospitality starving people must now feed me. In this country tormented by famine, twisted politics and violence, I have been given a glimpse of something else.