A VISITING US ambassador, Tony Hall, yesterday said he avoided meeting President Robert Mugabe because he did not want his trip, focused on assessing Zimbabwe's humanitarian and food situation, to look political.
Speaking after a three-day tour of the country, Hall, who only met one government minister, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) community and civil society, said Zimbabwe's food crisis was largely "man-made and avoidable".
The US Ambassador, who last visited Zimbabwe in 2002, announced a donation of US$51.8 million or 73 500 tonnes of food to six southern African countries.
The donation is set to benefit between five and six million people in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
However, much of the donation is expected to benefit Zimbabwe, where the World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that one million people are desperately in need of food aid. But the number could swell to about 4.3 million people before the next harvest.
Hall said Zimbabwe's food situation was "desperate" and attributed it to Mugabe's "counter-productive" land reform policies and the "clean-up operation", which rendered at least 700 000 people homeless and unable to feed themselves.
"They (those affected by clean up operation) don't have enough to keep themselves warm. They are hungry and their children are hungry. This tragedy was entirely avoidable," Hall said.
The WFP estimates that the number of people desperately in need of food aid could swell to about 4.3 million "in the next few months".
The US has provided US$300 million in food assistance to Zimbabwe since 2002.
Hall said Zimbabwe previously recognised as the breadbasket of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) had since reduced itself to a basket case because of its self-destructive policies.
"Today, the breadbasket is empty, thanks to counter-productive land reform policies and a drought that has made the situation even worse," Hall said.
The US envoy visited Mutare and Hatcliffe and Hopley farm in Harare, where thousands of families rendered homeless by internationally condemned operation are camped.
Hall said the situation in the camps was worrying as the people had no food, blankets and shelter.
But it was at Hopley Farm, which is manned by the military, that the US envoy got a rude awakening.
"I was told in hushed tones that the government doesn't want me at this place because old people are dying. We can't address the suffering of these people if we can't see them and assess their needs," he complained.
Hall, who met several NGOs, said several tonnes of relief food were being held up by bureaucratic paperwork.
"For example, I have heard that the US NGOs have 10 000 tonnes of food aid in Durban bottled up, waiting for import licences," he said, adding that another 15 000 tonnes were in the country but government had not sanctioned its distribution.
Hall, who left for South Africa yesterday, is the US ambassador to the (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), based in Rome.
He told a Press conference before leaving: "I did not seek to meet Mugabe because I did not want my trip here to look political. It was only to assess humanitarian and food security," he said.
Earlier last week, the government spokesperson, George Charamba, said the government was not aware of Hall's visit.
Mugabe blames Zimbabwe's economic woes on Western powers, accusing Britain and the United Sates, in particular, of working to unseat him because of his land policies.
Washington has slapped Mugabe, his ministers and members of the ruling party government with targeted sanctions for gross human rights violations.
But notwithstanding political stand-off between Harare and Washington, Hall said the US will continue assisting needy people in Zimbabwe.
"The United States will stand by the people of Zimbabwe, because there is no place for politics when it comes to feeding hungry people," he said.
Hall only met the Minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, Nicholas Goche, who said the government, was "coping" despite the critical food situation on the ground.