robert_mugabe_1.jpgJOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ The last Sunday before Christmas was celebrated with a carol service in a downtown Johannesburg church that has become a haven for hundreds of Zimbabweans who have fled their nation's collapse.

While songs in her native Shona and other southern African languages were being sung in the main chapel of the Central Methodist Church, Takelah Chakamza sat nearby in a crowed room that doubles as a kitchen by day and women's sleeping quarters by night, reviewing a bleak Christmas shopping list.

Cooking oil. Corn meal. Soap. Chakamza's family in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, had sent the list that morning by mobile phone text message. Chakamza, who earns 800 rand (about $80) a month cooking for a Johannesburg family, would buy the groceries and send them by bus, to be collected at the main Harare bus station. She had no extra money for presents for her mother, father, four sisters and brothers, daughter and four nieces and nephews back home.

“I'm the breadwinner. I'm the one who is supporting everyone,'' said Chakamza, who is among an estimated 3 million Zimbabwean economic and political refugees in South Africa.

The food and cash Zimbabweans abroad send home are a lifeline for a country where food, medicine and most other basic goods are desperately scarce. To add to the misery, in recent months, waterborne cholera has spread quickly because city officials across Zimbabwe can no longer afford to pick up trash or buy chemicals to purify water, and most hospitals have closed. Cholera, which is easily prevented and treated, has killed more than 1,000 Zimbabweans since August.

Critics blame Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe for the meltdown in a country that once boasted the finest health system in the region and exported food. Agriculture production has plummeted since he ordered an often violent land reform campaign in 2000 that saw farms go to his cronies instead of the poor blacks he has championed. Mugabe blames Western sanctions, though the European Union and U.S. travel bans and orders freezing bank accounts are targeted only at Mugabe and dozens of his top aides.

The 84-year-old Mugabe, who has ruled the country since independence from Britain in 1980, lost March presidential elections, but has refused to step down. A power-sharing deal proposed by Zimbabwe's neighbors as a solution has stalled in a dispute over whether Mugabe or his opposition would control key Cabinet posts.

Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, threatened Friday to halt power-sharing talks unless political detainees are released or charged by Jan. 1. President Robert Mugabe hinted at early elections Saturday, saying ominously that his supporters, accused of widespread political violence, should mobilize to avoid a repeat of his loss in March. Independent human rights groups have accused Mugabe's regime of stepping up attacks on dissidents in recent weeks.

In Zimbabwe, David Tafa, a farmer in the Bindura region, said: “There's no Christmas to talk about. There's no water, no food.''

While carolers at Central Methodist sang of the peaceful message of Christmas Sunday, William Kandowe, a 36-year-old teacher from Harare, said he was becoming convinced Mugabe would have to be forced out by Zimbabweans.

“Elections have failed _ those who win cannot rule. If you talk of talks, there are no talks,'' he said. “The only hope will be if we Zimbabweans can stand up for our rights.''

Kandowe spent last Christmas at Central Methodist, and would be sheltering at the church again this Christmas. In the year and a half he has been in South Africa, the 36-year-old Kandowe has helped Zimbabweans at the church organize computer classes for adults and a small school following the Zimbabwean syllabus for children. He also has seen the number seeking refuge grow from about 1,500 to about 3,800.

So many come every night now that more and more are sleeping outside on the pavement, he said.

Chakamza, who turns 36 the day after Christmas, would be spending the holiday and her birthday at Central Methodist, her home since February. She was hoping to work and earn a few extra rand on Christmas Day, and was waiting Sunday to hear whether her boss would need her. She said she also expected to spend next Christmas far from her family.

“I don't think things will change in Zimbabwe,'' she said. “It will take years.''

Pictured above is Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.