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U.N. slams Zimbabwe's slum destruction
Nick Wadhams, Associated Press (AP)
July 22, 2005

UNITED NATIONS -- Zimbabwe's destruction of urban slums is a "disastrous venture" that has left 700,000 people without homes or jobs, violated international law and created a grave humanitarian crisis, according to excerpts of a harshly worded U.N. report.

The report details the devastating extent of Operation Murambatsvina, or Drive Out Trash, for the first time. It says a further 2.4 million people have been affected by the countrywide campaign that began with little warning on May 19 and has seen thousands of shantytowns, ramshackle markets and makeshift homes demolished.

"While purporting to target illegal dwellings and structures and to clamp down on alleged illicit activities, (the operation) was carried out in an indiscriminate and unjustified manner, with indifference to human suffering," says the executive summary, obtained late Thursday by The Associated Press.

The report, using unusually harsh language for the United Nations, says the operation clearly violates international law and demands the government stop the destruction immediately.

Anna Tibaijuka, a U.N. envoy sent to Zimbabwe to study the effects of the campaign, delivered the document to Secretary-General Kofi Annan earlier this week. She suggested an independent probe could help decide if there was criminal negligence leading to any deaths.

The Zimbabwe government was given the final report on Wednesday but has made no public comment. The full report was to be released to the public on Friday.

President Robert Mugabe's government has defended the operation as an urban cleanup drive, and has promised to help the displaced rebuild. His rivals say the campaign is aimed at breaking up opposition strongholds among the urban poor and forcing them into rural areas where they can be more easily controlled by chiefs sympathetic to the government.

But the report said that even if the operation is an urban cleanup drive, the campaign -- which some have called Operation Restore Order -- has been a "crash" operation that will take Zimbabwe years to recover from.

"Even if motivated by a desire to ensure a semblance of order in the chaotic manifestations of rapid urbanization and rising poverty characteristic of African cities, nonetheless Operation Restore Order turned out to be a disastrous venture," the report said.

The government has pledged $325 million to provide 1.2 million houses or building plots by 2008, but economists say Zimbabwe can't afford such a project at a time of triple-digit inflation and a severe food crisis, the report said.

On Wednesday, police raided nine churches in the second-largest city of Bulawayo, rounding up people sheltering there since their homes were destroyed. Between 50 and 100 people were arrested at each site, said the Rev. Kevin Thompson of the city's Presbyterian Church.

"It was pretty brutal and horrific," he said. "They had elderly folk, and they were piling them onto vehicles; they were frog-marching children ... who had been asleep, and Bulawayo is very cold at the moment."

The executive summary seen by AP does not assign blame for the destruction, saying only that it was launched on the advice of a few people who were not identified. Yet, it suggests that the act might qualify as a crime against humanity and urged Zimbabwe to prosecute those responsible.

Tibaijuka's report said the clearance campaign was based on a set of colonial-era laws and policies "that were used as a tool of segregation and social exclusion." The African nation gained independence from Britain in 1980.

"The humanitarian consequences of Operation Restore Order are enormous," she said.

She called for a massive international humanitarian operation to help the masses of poor people left without housing or jobs.

Tibaijuka is the Tanzanian head of Nairobi-based U.N. Habitat, which deals with the plight of cities.

African nations on the 15-member Security Council have so far kept the crisis in Zimbabwe off the council's agenda. But several U.N. diplomats said they are hoping to get Tibaijuka to brief members on the report next week.

* Associated Press reporters Edith M. Lederer and Michael Hartnack contributed to this story.

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