Lusaka — It was early when police arrived at the home of Emmeldah Mutale, a widowed mother of five, in the capital, Lusaka, to demolish her two-bedroom house.
"We were all sleeping. When I peeked through the window, I just saw these many, many police officers with guns, machetes and knobkerries. There were vehicles and a big grader [bulldozer]. They were shouting 'Open the door! Open the door! Open the door!' It was like they came to kill us," Mutale, 35 told IRIN.
"They didn't give us time to remove our things. They drove the grader right into the house, and brought down part of it. I have lost goods, food. I am now stranded with my children. We have nowhere to sleep, nowhere to go. They have killed us alive."
Mutale built the house five years ago in Chinika shanty compound, about 6km west of the city centre. It cost her US$15,000. It was razed on 3 October.
Hers was one of 400 houses destroyed during a combined operation by security personnel and officers from the Sherriff of Zambia, acting on instructions from the High Court.
Mutale and her children have since spent nights in an unfinished building with others made homeless by the operation. The three-room structure where they are staying is also designated for destruction.
"We are about 25 men and women sleeping here. We just spread our beddings and lie down; we don't sleep. Our friends are using those other [unfinished] buildings. We are all piling ourselves inside here because there is nowhere to go," Mutale said.
"Our financial resources have just gone like that. It seems this life is just for the rich. They get everything they want, including our land. There is nothing for us, the poor," she said.
Since the Patriotic Front government of President Michael Sata took power in 2011, several operations have destroyed dwellings deemed illegal. The previous government, helmed by President Rupiah Banda, was perceived as soft on corruption; its party supporters accused of displacing legal land owners to sell their land.
The displaced owners are now reclaiming their property, sparking the demolitions and displacements.
In September 2012 about 100 middle-class houses were pulled down in Lusaka. Over 50 houses were demolished in the Zamtan shanty area of Kitwe, Copperbelt Province, and in Eastern Province, about 100 houses in a forest reserve of the provincial capital, Chipata, have been identified for destruction.
Moses Kateka, whose four-bedroom Libala house was demolished earlier this year, said, "I don't know why government is permitting such injustice without thinking about us, the Zambian people who voted for them.
"What we all know is that all land begins as illegal in Lusaka, but the [local] council later comes in and legalizes it. John Laing, Jack, Chazanga and Lilanda compounds [informal settlements] all started like that. The council never sold those plots. It is the cadres [ruling party supporters] who sold them. Now they are recognized townships," Kateka said.
A lawyer acting on behalf of people whose homes were razed, declined to be named but told IRIN that under Zambian law, ownership of the land is only conferred by obtaining title deeds, but land shortage has meant many people buy first and only pursue the title deeds later.
"There is no obligation to compensate encroachers. So what we fight for when representing those clients whose land has been repossessed is just some form of compensation for the developments put up on the land. But the land owners are not under obligation legally. It is deemed such people encroached on private property."
Poor face barriers
The poor face many barriers to legal land ownership. "Most poor people fail to title their land because of the lengthy process of recommendations and approvals, especially for those in rural areas. It could take as much as five years, and during that process someone could easily process the papers over the same land and automatically become the owner [after obtaining the title]," Henry Machina, executive director of the Zambia Land Alliance, a land rights advocacy organization, told IRIN.
The housing ministry estimated in 2011 that the country had a housing deficit of over one million units, yet there is no government housing programme. About 64 percent of Zambia's 13 million people live on $1 or less per day, according to Zambia's Central Statistical Office.
Housing minister Emerine Kabanshi told IRIN people constructing houses on private land and in undesignated areas should not blame the government for having their structures pulled down.
"We want order. We can't have a situation where houses are built under [power utility] Zesco's pylons, on top of water utility companies' manholes or on private land; that's anarchy. My government will not be party to that, and we shall not offer any compensation to such kind of people."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]