HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Sibongile Mlilo says it's not hard to think Zimbabwe is cursed -- mired in political deadlock, the economy in tatters and hundreds of people dying of cholera. "When I get home I have got to live in harmony with the raw sewage flowing in front my house day and night and the smell is unbearable," said Mlilo, 35, who sells cell phone air time from a street stall to scrounge a living for herself and her two children.
As Zimbabweans suffer, President Robert Mugabe claimed Thursday that his government, with the help of international groups, has contained a cholera epidemic that has come on top of a hunger crisis, the highest inflation rate in the world and shortages of everything from cash to medicine.
Mugabe's comments drew strong criticism Friday, including from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Disputing that the cholera outbreak was under control, Ban said he was "deeply disturbed at the deteriorating humanitarian situation there, for which the leadership of Zimbabwe cannot evade responsibility."
The World Health Organization said that the death toll from the waterborne disease had risen to 792 and that the number of cases had increased to 16,700. Mugabe's spokesman said the much-criticized remark was misunderstood, state media said Friday.
Cholera has spread rapidly in the southern African nation because of the health care system has crumbled and clean water is lacking.
Zimbabwe once had one of the best health care systems in sub-Saharan Africa. Today, most of its hospitals have been forced to close because they cannot afford medicine, equipment or wages for their staff. Officials don't have the money for imported spare parts and chemicals for water systems.
"We cannot afford to be in a denial mode as a nation," said John Mataruse, a 27-year-old university graduate on his way to look for work in neighboring South Africa, one of hundreds of Zimbabweans who cross the border every day.
"No amount of tough talking will help our situation when we need all the help we can get to avert a serious health crisis punctuated by shortage of drugs and a frustrated and shrinking medical staff," Mataruse said. "We should be honest with ourselves and with the world. The truth is that cholera remains a major disaster in Zimbabwe."
Zimbabwe's decline began in 2000, when Mugabe began an often violent campaign to seize white-owned commercial farms and give them to blacks. Most of the land ended up in the hands of his cronies and production has dropped, sending the agricultural-based economy into a tailspin.
In a country that once exported food, hungry Zimbabweans scrounge for corn kernels spilled from trucks carrying what little is harvested to market.
"I don't know how we are going to survive in 2009 if things continue like this," said Tatenda Sithole. She had just left a bank in the capital after withdrawing a 500,000-million Zimbabwe dollar note -- worth just $5 as a result of skyrocketing inflation.
Elphas Matambo said he no longer saw the point of going to work.
"Even if I get billions of (Zimbabwean) dollars from my employers at the end of every month, it does not make sense, because most shops in Harare demand payment in foreign currency," the clothing shop clerk said.
Officials of Mugabe's party "should just admit that they have failed and leave for other people to lead us," Matambo said.
On Friday, the opposition accused Mugabe of being disingenuous about the cholera crisis, calling his remarks "careless and reckless."
"The epidemic is still with us and is spreading fast," Henry Madzorera, health spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, said in a statement.
Aid groups warn that the outbreak could worsen with the onset of the rainy season, and the disease already has spread to Zimbabwe's neighbors. South Africa has declared its cholera-hit border region with Zimbabwe a disaster area. About 664 people have been treated for the disease and at least eight people have died in South Africa.
Mugabe has ruled since its 1980 independence from Britain and has refused to leave office following disputed elections in March. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have called recently for the 84-year-old leader to step down.
On Friday, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband accused Mugabe of causing "death and destruction on a grand scale" and said cholera remains a "very significant problem" in the country.
"There is a tragedy in Zimbabwe, and it's a man made tragedy -- and the man whose made it is the head of the government," Miliband told Associated Press Television News during a break at a European Union summit in Brussels, Belgium.
A power-sharing deal worked out in September between Mugabe and the opposition has stalled over how to divide Cabinet posts. The impasse has paralyzed public services, including health and education.
The opposition's statement said it was still committed to power-sharing, but "demands a definitive resolution of the same, in the shortest time possible."
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