President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe in the 22nd African Heads of State Conference on February 21, 2003 in Paris, France.
Credit: Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images

And so it went for the rest of our tour. The delegation was wined and dined, taken to Victoria Falls, shown a few farms, and given private meetings with top ministers. In the end, they concluded that Zimbabwe was a safe, beautiful country: Its national parks were an amazement, its land-reform policies were just, and it remained "one of the most stable countries in Africa." With that declaration, Barron and his colleagues left for New York.

I stayed.

"You don't realize the structural damage in this place, because it looks pretty damn good," said a senior U.S. diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity over coffee at the Harare Sheraton one afternoon. Stately jacaranda trees lined well-tended boulevards named for Julius Nyerere, Mandela, and other African leaders. On quiet side streets, elegant mansions sprawled on verdant lawns. But the Zimbabwean dollar was worthless, he added. Inflation hovered near 500 percent. There were gas lines, milk lines, sugar lines, and cooking-oil lines. There were lines for ground maize, or mealie-meal, the Zimbabwean staple. For bread, Zimbabweans lined up at dawn.

Increasingly, the citizens of Harare were growing frustrated. Earlier that day, I'd watched as thousands of people gathered in front of the headquarters of Mugabe's party, Zanu-PF, where they'd been tear-gassed and beaten with clubs by police until they ran away. The event was a memorial to Learnmore Jongwe, the 28-year-old spokesman of the opposition MDC, who had been arrested for the murder of his wife. Jongwe had died mysteriously in prison on October 21, 2002. What had begun as a memorial in central Harare had become a protest march leading directly to the doorstep of the ruling party.

"What we have is a total breakdown of law and order," explained a white middle-class woman who lived with her husband in the upscale suburb of Chisipiti. Like 60 percent of Harare, the couple had supported the MDC, as had most of their neighbors. But when it came time to vote, the husband's name had been dropped from the voters' rolls. This was fairly common, she explained. Her son's name had been dropped, too. A white neighbor who'd lived in Zimbabwe since 1937 had also been dropped. Many of her middle-class black friends had been, too. It was all in the spirit of cutting down the vote for the MDC. And in fact, it was easily done: In a city of 1.2 million, tens of thousands were not allowed to vote.

There was a protocol for survival, the woman said. For example, while she and her husband still supported the MDC, they were members of Zanu-PF. "You need the Zanu-PF party card for traveling," she explained. She showed me hers: It said peace, unity, development with a picture of Mugabe. "They have roadblocks, you see. So you learn the protocol, you get to a roadblock and you flash your Zanu-PF card; make the Zanu-PF fist" – she showed me how: thumb over fingers, arm raised high – "and they let you through. I tried to get all my workers a card so they could go visit their families. Everyone wants a Zanu-PF card, and I can't get any more – I asked my source about it."

"You have a source?"

Oh, everyone had to have a source, she said. Otherwise there wouldn't be anything. Eggs and sugar seemed taken care of for now, though she was currently in search of a good milk contact. "I think I found one – a friend of a friend is bringing the stuff in from South Africa. So now I'm getting five liters a week."

But things, she said, were getting worse: "I hit a man in the supermarket for a loaf of bread the other day. Elbowed him. For a loaf of bread." She grew quiet for a few moments. "I've become an animal," she said at last.

There are 11,950,000 blacks in zimbabwe, and 50,000 whites. in 1980, the white community numbered closer to 200,000, many of whom were committed to building a multiracial democracy and chose to stay.

"I thought, Here's a guy who's got it right," recalls Edwina Spicer, a British-born documentary-film maker who, inspired by Mugabe's promise of "unity," came to Zimbabwe just after independence. "This is a man who we really believed would do good for the country... but we didn't know then."