Robert Mugabe is in New York this week to attend the meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. Perhaps the other representatives might like to ask Mugabe about a report that last week his followers violently attacked 15 representatives of the political opposition, including the leader of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and senior officials of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. The beatings were just the latest attack in the war Mugabe is waging against his own people, whom he has ruled since 1980.
It's a hard story to focus on, given what else is going on in the world. Still, one wishes the U.N. were doing more because Zimbabwe is a silent catastrophe.
By fostering tribal and political conflict, Mugabe aims to add to the hundreds of millions of dollars he has pocketed from Congolese mines being "protected" by Zimbabwean troops. Meanwhile, the southern African nation — where living standards were once high by sub-Saharan standards — has been devastated.
The opening salvo of Mugabe's war occurred in February 2000, just days after his stunning defeat in a constitutional referendum that would have entrenched his dictatorial powers. Commercial farms supplying the bulk of the country's food and agricultural exports were invaded by unemployed youths paid by the government and claiming to be veterans of the independence struggle of the 1960s and 1970s. Though owned by whites, most of these farms were purchased after Mugabe came to power, with government approval. They provided work for hundreds of thousands of local people and supported schools, clinics, and AIDS victims.
As commercial agriculture was destroyed, the national economy plunged. Average incomes contracted by more than one-third between 2000 and 2003.
The economic damage has been so bad that Mugabe recently threatened to return redistributed farmland to its former owners. Such is the state of property rights in Zimbabwe.
Perhaps because white farmers were among the victims of post-2000 "agrarian reform," these events attracted international attention. Today, however, practically all of Mugabe's victims are black, and their agonies are noticed only when atrocities committed by the tyrant's henchmen are particularly heinous.
For example, the collapse of commercial agriculture led to massive migration from the countryside to urban areas, which caused the slums ringing Harare, the capital, and other cities to burgeon. Apparently advised by Mengistu Haile Mariam — the deposed Ethiopian despot whose doctrinaire Marxism and genocidal wars cost his country dearly and who has found refuge in Zimbabwe — Mugabe sent in the army and police to raze shantytowns, where "human filth" (the term the regime uses for victims and opponents) had concentrated. Some former slum-dwellers have starved, which is criminal in a country that used to export food to its hungry neighbors. Many more have left Zimbabwe, with about 3 million (out of a national population of 13 million) fleeing to neighboring South Africa.
By no means are displaced peasants and former shantytown residents the only Zimbabweans in South Africa. Doubting the loyalty of well-educated people, Mugabe has made a special target of teachers.
Instructors currently earn about $1,000 a year, which is well below the poverty line. Paradoxically, a family subsisting on this salary cannot afford to educate its own offspring, since annual tuition and other costs amount to $200 per child. Even more prosperous citizens suffer; it is illegal to hold foreign currency, despite the Zimbabwean dollar being ravaged by hyperinflation.
In August, I visited a center in Johannesburg that assists Zimbabwean refugees, including countless victims of torture. The handful of new arrivals I met included a teacher (a microfinance specialist) and others with professional skills and excellent English.
Sad to say, these people face harassment even in the nation where they have settled. A journalist whom I was supposed to meet had been picked up the previous evening in a police raid on a church-sponsored shelter for refugees. Several Zimbabweans were beaten as they slept, right after the police broke down the door. Others lost cellular telephones and cash. That refugees remain in South Africa, where this sort of treatment is routine, is testament to the suffering they would endure at home.
Why do Mugabe's despotism and its victims receive so little attention? One reason for limited sympathy in South Africa, where unemployment is very high, is xenophobia. Another reason is misplaced loyalty. During the 1980s, the Zimbabwean dictator provided sanctuary to the exiled leadership of the African National Congress, which has governed South Africa since 1994. Many South Africans view him as a liberator and elder statesman, and refuse to believe that he would deliberately persecute his own people and destroy the national economy in order to retain power.
Mugabe also benefits because his crimes are constantly overshadowed by events in other places. In July and August, for example, the world focused on the war between Israel and Hezbollah. Astonishingly, the South African Parliament — which has never censured Mugabe — got into the act, spending several days debating a resolution to condemn Israel.
Furthermore, the Zimbabwean strongman has an important patron: China, which defends tyranny anywhere and everywhere and where state-sponsored land invasions are a routine event. North Korea, the paw of Asia's giant panda, trained Zimbabwe's notorious Fifth Brigade, which was created soon after Mugabe became president to deal with dissidents. For this and other favors, China has been rewarded with large mining concessions.
Hounded at home and abroad and largely ignored by the rest of the world, Zimbabweans nevertheless have not lost hope. A few lawyers, judges, journalists, and politicians still try to assert their rights inside the country. Likewise, the refugees do what they can to maintain a positive outlook. My visit concluded with a pastor who works in the Johannesburg refugee center. He smiled, paraphrasing the traditional closing of the Passover meal: "Next year in Harare!" Amen to that!
Mr. Southgate is a faculty member of the Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics at Ohio State University.