Robert Mugabe's ruling party said on Monday it was "disturbed" that young Zimbabweans, in particular, showed no pride in their nation's independence from colonial-era white rule after a bitter seven-year bush war in which at least 40,000 fighters died.

But Linda, 22, an unemployed office clerk, is not interested in the lavish celebrations planned throughout the country.

Linda, who wouldn't give her last name for fear of reprisals, now hangs out in a seedy Harare bar, looking for customers.

She said she is aware of the dangers of prostitution in a nation where at least 3,000 die of HIV/Aids-related illnesses each week.

"What can I do?" said Linda in a voice breaking with desperation and typical of the fear felt among many Zimbabweans at Mugabe's clampdown on civil liberties,
"I have to eat."

Mercedes limousines were parked outside a posh restaurant and bar across town.

Drinking doubles

Half a dozen of its patrons, drinking doubles, consumed within 90 minutes a bottle of the finest 12-year-old Scotch whisky for a total cost of about $280, at least four times the monthly salary of the bartender and other average wage earners.

The vast and growing disparity between the poor and a rich elite of about 5% of the population is blamed largely on corruption, black-market profiteering, favouritism in official contracts and land deals and the peddling of political influence.

Schoolchildren wait in queue for
food provided by an aid agency

Unemployment exceeds 70% and inflation is the highest in the world at 913% on basic goods.

Scarcities and black marketeering have sharply eroded the spending power of the Zimbabwe currency in the past decade.

An estimated 3.5 million Zimbabweans, many skilled professionals, are living outside the country.

Disruptions in the agriculture-based economy after the often violent seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms since 2000 have led to acute shortages of food, gasoline, and medicines.

The weak Zimbabwe dollar, plummeting in the worst economic crisis since independence, has hit health, education and other public services. Absenteeism from schools has soared in the wake of frequent fee increases.

Soaring prices  

Harare's main Parirenyatwa hospital emergency room on Friday was unable to provide surgical stitching for a woman who split open her chin in a fall.

Road accident victims waited hours for painkillers and treatment.

Health Ministry officials acknowledge the shortcomings and have increased treatment and hospitalisation charges in a health service that, like education, was mainly free in the first booming years of independence.

Last week, the government allowed private doctors to double their consultation fees to about $60 a visit.

In an unusual insight in the state media, cartoonist Innocent Mpofu depicted a doctor asking his sickly patient: "Where does it hurt?"