26 June 2005

Zimbabwe: Inside Mugabe's New Horror

Harare — Demolition blitz leaves a million people homeless and destitute

HUMAN rights groups and non-governmental organisations have warned of a massive humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe following the destruction of more than 300 000 homes by President Robert Mugabe's government in the past month.

The destruction of the homes, part of a clean-up campaign called "Operation Drive Out Filth", has displaced more than a million people.

They have been moved to strictly controlled transit camps with few facilities. Others have simply set up homes on roadsides and river banks.

There are fears of disease epidemics in the camps and the informal settlements. Thousands of children have been forced out of school.

In Harare, some refugees have set up home on the banks of the polluted Mukuvisi River, which runs through the city. For years, industrial companies have dumped toxic waste in it.

Women and children are among the worst affected by the demolition campaign - ostensibly aimed at ridding the city of shanty structures, crime and corruption.

On a cold winter's day, widowed Janet Chinyanga and her two schoolgoing children were huddled in a plastic shack pondering the future.

Their rented backyard dwelling in neighbouring Mbare had been razed, leaving them stranded.

While several thousand displaced people were dumped at Caledonia Farm, a holding camp about 30km east of Harare, Chinyanga chose to stay at the riverside in the hope that she can sneak back to Mbare Rural Bus Terminal to sell her wares.

She was one of thousands of vendors whose economic lifeline was cut by the clean-up campaign.

"I was supporting my family by selling boiled eggs, peanuts and vegetables. With my house crushed and market stall destroyed, God knows how I will survive with my girls.

"I just don't understand what's happening in this country any more," Chinyanga said.

Her daughters, Anesu, 6, and Tarriro, 8, have stopped going to school because they have no money.

The situation is dire at the Mukuvisi River. There is no safe drinking water. People wash in the polluted river and relieve themselves in the bushes.

The 33-year-old mother's predicament is similar to that of other desperate families. Her children join a growing band of youngsters who brave the winter cold to beg on the streets.

Most displaced people shun the government's holding camps because there is no way of making a living there and they are equally squalid.

With political bickering and local red tape hindering relief efforts, the plight of the displaced people is set to worsen.

The humanitarian disaster comes at a time when all Zimbabweans are suffering. A six-year economic recession has been marked by commodity shortages, rampant inflation and rising unemployment.

At least 200 000 shantytown homes have been destroyed, leaving a million people homeless, according to human rights groups. More than 40 000 people have been arrested.

However, the Zimbabwe government says the number of people made homeless is only 120 000.

In South Africa, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi slammed the evictions yesterday.

"The [Zimbabwean] government has convinced itself that it lost the working-class vote in the urban areas because of the informal sector, which has been providing income to people in the wake of the almost 70% unemployment rate there. Destroying these homes and structures destroyed the last form of income these people had," Vavi said.

"We are outraged. Two children actually died during the demolitions. Those responsible should be charged with murder."

Vavi also slammed the African Union's refusal to condemn the crackdown, saying it was taking "African solidarity" too far - "to the point that they deny reality", he said.

"The AU should have acted in the way the UN secretary-general did. It should have sent a mission to Zimbabwe to establish what is happening. It did not even do that.

"All they remind us of is their policy of non-interference. The AU must not operate like the old OAU [Organisation for African Unity]."

Zimbabwe's Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube also slammed the AU's response and, on Friday, called for Mugabe's arrest and prosecution.

Speaking at the Vatican, Ncube alleged that Zimbabwe's government planned to drive disaffected urban voters back to the famine-hit countryside for political re-education, as the Pol Pot regime did in Cambodia in the 1970s, Reuters reports.

Ncube accused African leaders of standing idly by.

Ministers of the G8 rich nations called on Zimbabwe to "abide by the rule of law and respect human rights" at a meeting in London.

The Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, an international human rights organisation, said the destruction of homes was a crime against humanity.

South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki said he had discussed the matter on Friday with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who had appointed a special envoy to investigate. The envoy would prepare a report "and then we'll act on that", the President said.

Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad said yesterday that South Africa was not ignoring events in Zimbabwe, but was at a loss as to what to do.

"We are trying to find a solution, but the problem is that we have done everything we possibly can. We can't work out what else is expected of us," he said.

"We will see what the envoy says. It is a difficult one for us," he conceded.

Meanwhile, Mugabe has embarked on a "construction and reconstruction programme" ahead of Wednesday's UN inspection in what is widely considered to be a damage-limitation exercise.

The army has been deployed to rescue tens of thousands of refugees left homeless by the blitz, and "building brigades" will soon be deployed to reconstruct houses, factory shells and informal market stalls.

The government has started allocating residential stands for houses.

AP reports that state radio in Zimbabwe reported yesterday that the first 500 of 5 600 new homes were ready for occupation in Harare, and 250 000 plots of land had been made available immediately countrywide.

In a TV interview on Friday night, Mugabe pledged Z3-trillion for 1.2 million houses and plots of land by 2008.

He urged Zimbabweans "to remain focused and disregard the machinations of the West trying to demonise the country".

But the opposition Movement for Democratic Change said the reconstruction programme was "a panic reaction by Mugabe" to the international outcry against the destruction.

Additional reporting by Charmeela Bhagowat

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