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  • Operation Murambatsvina - Countrywide evictions of urban poor - Index of articles

  • Zim's new homeless live 'worse than animals'
    Reesha Chibba, Mail & Guardian (SA)
    July 18, 2005

    Just outside South Africa's borders, a humanitarian crisis is brewing. Despite a news blackout imposed by Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, conditions in a large camp housing those displaced by Mugabe's Operation Murambatsvina are drawing sharp criticism from countries around the world.

    Since May this year, thousands of people have been forced to desert their homes and have been dumped at the makeshift Caledonia camp, about 30km outside Harare.

    Last week, the clean-up operation was extended to wealthier suburbs in Harare.

    In the past two weeks, there has been a stream of foreign visitors to Zimbabwe seeking more information about the controversial campaign.

    First, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan sent Sharad Shankardass, the executive director of UN Habitat, to Zimbabwe for two weeks to learn more about the campaign. The envoy's report is expected to be completed within a week.

    Then it was the turn of the African Union, whose representative Zimbabwe turned away because the government said it was too busy to see him and that he had not given the government enough advance notice of his visit.

    Among the few foreigners to visit the camp was a group of clerics from the South African Council of Churches (SACC). They returned to South Africa with tales of horror, calling the situation a humanitarian disaster waiting to happen.

    It seems the whole world is baying for Mugabe's blood, with United States President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair calling for strong action by Mbeki.

    This puts the South African president in a tricky position. He seems to be working behind the scenes to soothe tempers while publicly saying that Zimbabwe's people must engineer their own future.

    Nomfanelo Kota, the director of public diplomacy in South Africa's Department of Foreign Affairs, told the Mail & Guardian Online: "South Africa respects the sovereignty of the people of Zimbabwe and will continue to encourage dialogue among all the political and other role players in Zimbabwe in an effort to create an environment conducive to reconciliation and the reconstruction and development of Zimbabwe."

    Mbeki sent his new deputy, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, darting into Zimbabwe last week for talks with Mugabe and her counterpart, Joyce Mujuru. It emerged over the weekend that Mugabe asked Mlambo-Ngcuka for a loan of hundreds of millions of rands to buy fuel, food, seeds and fertiliser.

    Kota says: "South Africa is also engaging with Zimbabwe on a bilateral level and the latest visit by the deputy president ... is part of those ongoing efforts to help Zimbabwe to solve its problems."

    Mbeki's spokesperson Bheki Khumalo told the M&G Online: "Zimbabwe must come up with their own, homegrown solutions [to the country's problems].

    Mbeki has been criticised for his policy of quiet diplomacy towards Zimbabwe, which Khumalo says is a term that doesn't exist in any political class, adding that the president is sticking with this approach and it's not going to change.

    However, Kota says: "South Africa will continue to work through collective international efforts to assist the people of Zimbabwe to find lasting solutions to their problems.

    "As part of his latest efforts, President Mbeki has consulted with the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, with regards to the work of the special envoy, the executive director of UN Habitat, who visited Zimbabwe a few weeks ago, to understand the situation of the latest operation better.

    "Further engagement is also taking place within the Southern African Development Community [SADC] and the AU in terms of how African multilateral organisations can assist in the reconstruction of Zimbabwe's economy."

    SA should take 'more active role'
    Pastor Ray McCauley, president of the International Fellowship of Christian Churches and a member of the SACC delegation that visited Zimbabwe, told the M&G Online that the Zimbabwean problem is not only internal and that South Africa should take a more active role.

    "What would [have] happened to South Africa [during apartheid] if the international world didn't take interest?" he asks, adding that the people in the camp are "looking to Mbeki" to do something "constructive".

    "Particularly in the role of Nepad [the New Partnership for Africa's Development], they see him as a leader. We just really want to see African leaders taking an active strong role to stop Mugabe and bring sanity to the situation."

    Zimbabweans living in the Caledonia transit camp "are traumatised, bruised and battered into deep trauma", says Methodist bishop Ivan Abrahams, who was also part of the SACC group.

    "It could have been a camp of displaced people in [the Democratic Republic of] Congo, [but] the whole tragedy is that we not talking about people in Congo."

    "[It's] the same kind of thing you see in Bosnia," he told the M&G Online. "A lot of their shelter and livelihood had been destroyed. [They are] feeling very disillusioned, and the vulnerable among them are the women and the children.

    Abrahams said the camp has no infrastructure in place and the only amenity available is a clinic, housed in a tent.

    "This is the worst tragedy that the people there have ever witnessed. There are many, many babies that are still [being] breastfed.

    "We were told that a doctor comes [once a day to the clinic]," says Abrahams -- but he only saw community workers handing out female condoms.

    "There were a lot of younger people. They were just loitering. Besides one loud radio, other folk were just around. They were not productive. There was a sense of helplessness," he adds.

    Most people are using plastic sheets as shelter.

    "Judging from the most elementary and rudimentary shelters, it's plastic bags supported by a few poles. I could not see everybody [in one family] huddling in these rudimentary tents.

    On Wednesday last week, the ruling Zanu-PF used its two-thirds majority in Parliament to reject a motion by the MDC condemning the clean-up operation.

    Reuters reported that state radio on Wednesday said: "After scrutinising the ongoing clean-up exercise for over two weeks, members of the sixth Parliament of Zimbabwe have rejected a motion by the MDC ... to condemn the exercise."

    Conditions in Zimbabwe have not always been this way. During the late 1970s, Mugabe was lauded by his people. He was credited with ending colonial rule in Zimbabwe -- then formally known as Rhodesia. He also supported sanctions against South Africa before the lifting of apartheid.

    After he came into power in 1980, many people viewed Mugabe as a war hero fighting the racist white majority for the freedom of his people. Zimbabwe's economy was booming back then, but soon living standards started to drop. Unemployment and inflation increased, and the admiration for the man who redeemed Zimbabwe was tainted.

    Abrahams describes the transit camp as having only the "bare necessities".

    "I think a lot of these people are traumatised. There's a sense of numbness [in the camp]. They just seemed to be beaten into submission.

    "What one sees is the result of trauma ... I think these people couldn't believe what was happening to them.

    "It seems as if the government war on the poor is a kind of scorched-earth policy to drive people into submission [politically]," he says.

    On arrival at Mbare township, close to Harare, where most of the houses were demolished, Abrahams says he was shocked by what he saw. He compared it to a town that had just been hit by air raids.

    "I just looked at the places from where the people were moved and it looked as if there had just been an air raid, with so much litter ... [I felt] outrage, absolute outrage and immense anger," he says.

    He says the SACC delegates were wary of taking photographs, fearing they would be blamed for "inciting [the] people".

    "I think some of the haunting images that will be etched in one's memory for life is looking in the eyes of women [and seeing] no hope. There's almost a plea of 'get me out of this situation' or 'what can I do'. One feels hopeless."

    Abrahams hopes Mbeki will revise his stance of quiet diplomacy.

    "It's just not working. This visit just reaffirmed that. To remain silent any longer would be scandalous to us. The credibility of all African leadership is at stake around what is happening in Zimbabwe.

    "I think it's somewhat scandalous that we have the AU meeting in Libya and [the African leaders remaining] adequately silent [about Zimbabwe]."

    All foreign media have been expelled from the country and the country's journalists live in fear of their lives.

    Rangu Nyamurundira, a lawyer for the Public Interest Litigation Project in Zimbabwe, told the M&G Online that he went to the camp to represent a woman who was arrested for taking pictures while she was compiling a document for ActionAid, a British-based developmental charity group.

    Her camera was confiscated and the police are still investigating the case, but she has not been charged with anything yet, he says.

    About the camp itself, Nyamurundira says: "I think it was a sad sight. It's quite cold as well. It's one of the coldest winters I've experienced in Harare.

    "I think it's unfortunate that no alternative housing was provided for the people before their homes were demolished."

    Action groups such as the "Women's Action Group, ActionAid and Unicef [the United Nations Children's Fund]" are providing the people in the camp with blankets and water, he says.

    'Worse than animals'
    McCauley told the M&G Online that people in the camp are "living worse than animals".

    "Everyone I spoke to says they were living for many years in a brick home and were given permission from [the city] council [to do so]," he says.

    Many of the people at the camp "began to weep and cry" when he was speaking to them, he adds. One child, a "most beautiful big-eyed boy", touched the pastor's heart.

    "He had one shoe on and the other was broken. [His] shorts were sopping wet [probably from wetting himself], his nose was running and his hair had lice in it," says McCauley.

    McCauley sees no "purpose other than madness" for the forced removals in Zimbabwe.

    Through the churches in Zimbabwe, he says, there is some infrastructure in the camp. People were told that they would be given water, but they have to provide their own tubs to bathe in.

    "Everything they owned has been bashed down."

    To put up the tents made from plastic and wooden poles, "some of the wood has been broken from their own furniture", he says.

    "[People] were absolutely dazed at what they were going through. Some of them had cuts and holes in their skin.

    "There was singing [from some kids, while] others were just sitting around."

    "We're going to do a national and an international drive to raise money [for the people in Zimbabwe]. We have the infrastructure through the churches," says McCauley. "We need to stop this deadlock from happening."

    'They were just dumped there'
    Reverend Ron Steele, McCauley's spokesperson at Rhema and another SACC delegation member, told the M&G Online that Rwanda's refugee camps, which he visited in 1994, "would be a five-star place compared to what we saw".

    "You just see groups of people around a fire.

    "These people have just been dumped there. There's no running water ... it's dusty, dry, windy and cold. [The camp] is a piece of land with sand, some trees and rocks.

    "It's quite a long way out of Harare ... about 30km [away from] where these people were moved.

    "It makes it almost impossible for people to get into town and get jobs. There is a fuel shortage in Zimbabwe which is absolutely appalling. The transport system is just not working because the fuel supply is so short," says Steele.

    He adds that approximately 25% of Zimbabweans are HIV-positive. Though the number of them in the camp is unknown, he is concerned about how they will receive anti-retroviral treatments now that they are so far away from Harare and their hospitals.

    "They're not getting any medical treatment. They don't have that access any more."

    According to Steele, the only thing the Zimbabwean government provides is portable toilets. There is pressure on the camp's amenities because of the large number of people living in the camp.

    People spend "half their day" walking to water tanks and back again, and there is no electricity, "so they were cutting down trees to make a fire".

    "There was a little tent this child had made. It was tiny and he could just squeeze in and it would cover him," says Steele.

    'I don't have a future any more'
    He met a woman whom he describes as "articulate and very angry". She used to have a stall in the flea market, and had her electric strove and fridge with her.

    "She's sitting in the middle of the bush ... it's so ridiculous," says Steele.

    Another 20-year-old woman claimed she had no parents and was looking after her three siblings.

    "Their clothing was in a pathetic state and you could see lice in their hair. [She told me] 'I don't know what I can do. I don't have a rural area to go to. I don't know what I can do. I have no village.'"

    Yet another victim of the removals worked as a security guard before he was moved to the camp. He told Steele: "I haven't got a future. Nobody knows me [in the rural area]. I'm 25 years old. I grew up in the city. I was trying to plan for my future. Now I don't have one any more."

    Mbare township, Steele says, was "just stand after stand and it was just rubble. It was pathetic. The flea market was deserted."

    Steele feels there are solutions to the crisis in Zimbabwe, but that Mugabe doesn't want to implement anything.

    "There has been no planning [in Zimbabwe]. Everything has been done ad hoc. They can't solve their problems themselves ... I would put money on it," he says.

    "I never saw a happy person [in the camp]. I thought people in the camps would mob us and say, 'Tell Mugabe this and tell him that' ... It didn't happen. There's a sort of numbness in that place ... they don't know how to react. They feel helpless.

    "It's terrible that the government can treat people like this. There's no care and no compassion [for its people].

    "It's an appalling situation that people are being treated as objects," similar to the apartheid era in South Africa when the blacks were treated as objects, says Steele.

    He feels South Africa is doing what it can for Zimbabwe, but thinks people there are "running out of time".

    "The situation is getting desperate. There's a new urgency to get something concrete [to happen].

    "The country is slowly disintegrating."

    Anger and confusion
    Paul Nantulya, from the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in South Africa, told the M&G Online: "One did not expect to find camps such as you'd find in Burundi. [The camp] resembles a refugee-type situation.

    "There was a sense of anger and confusion [around the camp]. Crucial facilities are non-existent in some places and if they are, they are overtaxed."

    Nantulya says many people in the camp are confused and still have their property title deeds and trading licences.

    He feels South Africa "needs to take a stronger stance with the people" of Zimbabwe because any sort of uprising there would reflect badly on Southern Africa.

    "I never thought I'd see something [like this] just a few kilometres from our border," says Nantulya.

    "It's a very demoralising experience, to live in a camp like that [in Zimbabwe]. I'm very worried it's going to be permanent."

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