Story Highlights• Zimbabwe ambassador to U.S. calls eating rodents "a delicacy"
• Resident: "There's no relief in sight"
• Critics blame President Robert Mugabe for deteriorating conditions
• Archbishops says if Mugabe stays in power, country will head into "abyss"
By Jeff Koinange
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(CNN) -- Twelve-year-old Beatrice returns from the fields with small animals she's caught for dinner.
Her mother, Elizabeth, prepares the meat and cooks it on a grill made of three stones supporting a wood fire. It's just enough food, she says, to feed her starving family of six.
Tonight, they dine on rats.
"Look what we've been reduced to eating?" she said. "How can my children eat rats in a country that used to export food? This is a tragedy." (Watch as Beatrice digs for rodents in the fields of Zimbabwe)
This is a story about how Zimbabwe, once dubbed southern Africa's bread basket, has in six short years become a basket case. It is about a country that once exported surplus food now apparently falling apart, with many residents scrounging for rodents to survive.
According to the CIA fact book, which profiles the countries of the world, the Zimbabwean economy is crashing -- inflation was at least 585 percent by the end of 2005 -- and the nation now must import food.
Zimbabwe's ambassador to United States, Machivenyika Mapuranga, told CNN on Tuesday that reports of people eating rats unfairly represented the situation, adding that at times while he grew up his family ate rodents.
"The eating of the field mice -- Zimbabweans do that. It is a delicacy," he said. "It is misleading to portray the eating of field mice as an act of desperation. It is not."
Western journalists aren't allowed in Zimbabwe. CNN gained access via a cameraman who operated under the radar of the Zimbabwean government. Mapuranga said that there are news agencies allowed to film there but that the country was "under siege" by media outlets like CNN and the BBC, "which have shown themselves to be hostile to the people of Zimbabwe."
Critics: Mugabe rules with iron fist
Critics point to one man for the nation's downfall -- 82-year-old President Robert Mugabe, one of the longest-serving rulers in Africa. They say he rules with an iron fist and has reduced Zimbabwe to a nation of beggars.
On Friday, Mugabe downplayed the situation in the country.
"I know we are in difficult times; it's hard times that we are going through. You are bearing a fair share of the burden, we know that [but] Zimbabwe will never collapse," he told a meeting of his ruling political party, the Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front, or ZANU - PF, according to Reuters.
But Shadrack Gutto, of the Center for International Political Studies, said Zimbabwe is on the verge of collapse.
"The reality is it's really grinding down and not improving," he said.
The downslide began, critics say, in 2000 when the government crippled the country's prime commercial farms by running off white farmers and redistributing the land to Mugabe's cronies. At least a dozen white farmers were killed and dozens were injured and hospitalized. Thousands more fled the country and the land. Most of that land now lies empty and abandoned.
Mapuranga said the program was "the greatest thing that has happened to Zimbabwe."
The ambassador said the Africans who had been marginalized by whites before can now own land and control natural resources.
"This generation may suffer, but we are actually laying the foundations of prosperity and Zimbabwean control," he said.
Mugabe's political rivals have been neutralized. The official opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, has been fractured by infighting and disunity. Its leader, former trade unionist Morgan Tvasngirai, just barely survived being convicted of treason after a video was released showing him discussing plans for the supposed "elimination" of Mugabe.
Last year, a few months after the presidential election, the government of Zimbabwe bulldozed homes and businesses in the capital of Harare. It was called "Operation Murambatsvina," which in the local Shona language means "Drive Out Rubbish." The United Nations said more than 700,000 people were left homeless, and critics say they were targeted for their political views.
'We live like animals'
In the midst of the rubble that litters the once-scenic capital, Winnie Gondo, a mother of five, uses any means available to survive. She lives in a burned-out vehicle.
Gondo told CNN she lost not only her home but a twin son, who died from the squalid conditions.
"I've lost everything," she said. "We live like animals here and there's no relief in sight."
Zimbabwe has been reduced to a nation of beggars, Archbishop of Bulawayo Pious Ncube said.
"Life has become extremely difficult in Zimbabwe and a lot of depression ... people are very much depressed and they can no longer think idealistically. They're looking all the time for food -- 'Where do I get my next meal,'" he said.
Ncube traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa, to show a video that he says details numerous cases of police brutality and illegal clamping down on anyone who opposes Mugabe.
The archbishop said that Mugabe wants to hold on to power, in part to avoid the same fate as Charles Taylor, who once ruled Liberia. After being forced from office in 2003, Taylor now is in a prison awaiting trial at The Hague, charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Ncube believes that if Mugabe keeps control, Zimbabwe will continue to sink into an "abyss," and experts agree the only way the nation will eventually get off its knees is when a new president is elected.
"The key will be when Robert Mugabe moves out of the picture as a leader of Zimbabwe," Gutto said.
Until such time, Zimbabwe seems set to remain as a nation of food lines and fuel queues, of shacks and squatters, of rats and rat-eaters -- a nation fast grinding to a halt.
"I can't remember the last time I ate real food," says Elizabeth, the mother feeding her family. "We can't afford anything anymore. We're now just eating these rats to survive."
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