First Person: Rod Nordland in Zimbabwe

When you hear the brutal details about Zimbabwe, it's hard to imagine how it can get any worse without the government collapsing, or Robert Mugabe resigning. The hyperinflation, the millions going hungry, the canceled anti-AIDS programs, the 3 million (out of a total 11 million) who have fled the country. Then you go there, as I did in June, and the most striking thing is the normalcy amid all that hardship. There's the group of nine high-school graduates meeting with the American ambassador before they head to the United States for college; at night they hide from marauding enforcers looking for opposition voters. Young men with clubs chant as they trot along a road after dark, looking for victims, but a white woman pushing a child in a stroller crosses just in front of them, unmolested. Mugabe is an Anglophile, and so are many Zimbabweans. Everyone's talking about the forthcoming elections—which Mugabe was clearly going to steal (and did)—and the vanishing or murdered opposition politicians, but they also crowd around TVs to watch Britain's Andy Murray advance to the semifinals at Wimbledon, and debate loudly whether he's too obnoxious to deserve victory.

When I was there, I moved underground with striking ease, in a land where being a foreign correspondent is a criminal offense. Zimbabweans hid me, helped me, even fed me—sometimes when they had too little to eat themselves. The car-rental agent winked when I changed cars—again and again. They tipped me to the secret policeman sitting next to me at a hotel business center. Once, the police nearly caught me, at a demonstration, and put me in the back of their pickup truck with other prisoners. Unlike them, I wasn't cuffed and they advised me to just run, so I did, with the police in hot pursuit; we all jumped into our vehicles, and I had my first, and I hope last, car chase. The police didn't have a chance. I careered around a corner, and a crowd of onlookers wandered into the street and blocked the cops' way, just long enough for a clean getaway and another visit to the car-rental agency.

Unfortunately, it has gotten much worse there since June, and one can't help but think that these must really be the very last days. A cholera epidemic. Two million people on the World Food Program feeding rosters. A central bank accused of stealing the entire $136 million donated to AIDS victims. Police and Army troops fighting one another, after unpaid soldiers broke into money changers' shops and paid themselves. Since 1998 people have been saying that Mugabe's Zimbabwe can't possibly get worse, and yet, it always does.