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Zimbabwe's elderly whites return to Britain

Their stories encompass the rise and fall of Rhodesia and of Zimbabwe.

Increased tensions between Robert Mugabe's regime and whites, as well as the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy, have led many elderly whites to leave the country to return to Britain. Above, Zimbabwean white farmer James Etherredge opens the gate at the Etheredge Farm in Chegutu, 62 miles west of the capital Harare, April 17, 2009. (Philimon Bulawa/Reuters)

HARARE — Hundreds of Zimbabwe’s elderly whites are being flown back to Britain by the same state that shipped them out to what was then Rhodesia over half a century ago.

For more than 50 years they enjoyed the good life and raised families as part of the colonial-era privileges of white minority rule. They survived the bitter and bloody war against Rhodesian rule. After the country achieved majority rule and became Zimbabwe in 1980, they stayed on in the place that had become their home.

Now, with their children gone and their pensions made worthless by stratospheric inflation, many have reluctantly accepted the British government’s offer of a free ticket “home” and a social safety net once they arrive there.

“It breaks my heart to leave,” said Len Huxley, 87, who distinguished himself fighting for Britain in World War II. “But I can no longer afford to live here.”

Inflation has now been tamed by the use of the United States dollar. From one billion percent a year ago, it is now minus 1 percent. But relief came too late for Huxley and his generation. With their savings wiped out and no other source of income many had to reluctantly accept the British government's offer of a plane fare back and automatic access to the country's generous welfare system.

White colonists first came to the country in 1890. By 1939 they numbered about 50,000. After World War II the colonial government provided assisted passages for immigrants, some of whom received land if they had served in the armed forces. Many members of the Royal Air Force who had been in the Empire Air Training Scheme in Rhodesia were smitten by the country’s beauty and returned at the end of the war.

In its heyday in 1965, Rhodesia's white population numbered 270,000 while the black population was 5 million. In November 1965 settler leader Ian Smith proclaimed UDI — Unilateral Declaration of Independence from British rule to avoid British pressure for majority rule.

Far from being ruined by United Nations sanctions, with South Africa’s help the rebel white minority-ruled country prospered at first, producing chrome, gold and tobacco and developing an infrastructure and industry that was the envy of much of Africa.