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'Dust people' starve in Zimbabwe ruins
Christina Lamb, The Sunday Times (UK)
October 23, 2005

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2089-1838506,00.html

SOME call them the "dust people", others the "people with no address". President Robert Mugabe's government has a more graphic term: "Sniff out the rats who have sneaked back in" is the name of the latest campaign by police and soldiers against the city dwellers whose homes they demolished earlier this year but who have refused to flee. Thousands of Zimbabweans are now living like animals in the midst of rubble, crawling in and out of hovels less than 3ft high, fashioned from cardboard boxes and broken asbestos.

With no means of earning a living - and with aid agencies banned by the government from helping them - they are forced to forage in rubbish for rotten vegetables or prostitute themselves for the equivalent of 10p to feed their children. A doctor who managed to get in said tuberculosis was rife.

These are the victims of Operation Murambatsvina (drive out the filth), Mugabe's so-called urban beautification campaign which, according to a damning report by the United Nations, left more than 700,000 homeless or without an income.

Yet last week the United Nations flew Zimbabwe's president on an all-expenses-paid trip to Rome to celebrate World Food Day in defiance of European Union travel sanctions. Flanked by bodyguards, he proclaimed that there was no hunger in his country and blamed its problems on George W Bush and Tony Blair, branding them international terrorists and likening them to Hitler and Mussolini.

Such hypocrisy comes as no surprise to the people squatting amid piles of debris in southern Harare, who feel abandoned by the outside world.

There have been similar images of devastation from this year's hurricanes and earthquakes. But this is man-made destruction - the revenge of a president against the inhabitants of areas that dared to vote against him in one election after another.

"This is the most depressing thing I have ever seen in years of working in trouble spots," a UN official said. "It's just all so unnecessary."

The bulldozers and axes that destroyed thousands of homes and market stalls in June and July, supposedly to clean up the cities, have left a nation teeming with homeless people.

The International Crisis Group estimates Zimbabwe has between 4m and 5m internal refugees - more than a third of the population. They are the victims of Operation Murambatsvina, and workers kicked off commercial farms seized in five years of violent land grabs.

Yet Mugabe refuses to allow a $30m humanitarian appeal by the UN for blankets and food. He objects to the use of the word "humanitarian".

A consignment of 6,000 blankets and 37 tons of food raised by the South African Council of Churches for the new homeless was blocked at the border by customs authorities. First they demanded duties, then they refused entry, claiming they needed proof the food was not genetically modified.

Many of those who lost their homes were dumped in rural areas, putting enormous strain on villages on the edge of starvation. But others had nowhere to go. These are the people who ended up in the dust of places such as Tsiga Grounds and Ground No 5 in the Mbare district of the capital.

Among the hundreds crouching in fly-ridden makeshift shelters is Zvikomborera, a 33-year-old woman with short cropped hair who is blind in one eye. A single mother with two daughters aged 5 and 13, she lost everything when armed police with dogs and bulldozers arrived at her small cabin.

We met in secret because Tsiga Grounds is patrolled by a vigilante gang who beat the inhabitants and try to destroy the makeshift dwellings. Gang members appeared both times I tried to enter.

"They tell us, 'Sons of bitches, are you moles that live on the ground? Crawl back to the hole that you came from'," Zvikomborera said. While Mugabe was enjoying Rome, Zvikomborera explained how she is forced to live. Her children scour the rubbish dump of a supermarket for rotten potatoes and tomatoes out of which she cuts any good bits. The previous day, the two girls had shared one cup of rice. Zvikomborera had nothing.

Until two weeks ago they were getting food from a Buddhist organisation. Then the Department of Social Welfare summoned aid agencies, such as World Vision and the UN World Food Programme (WFP), and banned them from distributing any more.

"They told us there is no such thing as urban displaced people in Zimbabwe and there is no hunger in Harare," said one aid worker. "They just want these people to die."

Like most of her fellow dust people, Zvikomborera is still astounded by what happened to her. "Before Murambatsvina we were poor but we were managing. My children were clean and went to school. I collected scrap wood from carpenters and industries and sold it for firewood.

"When the police and dogs came, we lost everything. In one hour they had smashed my home, bed, wardrobe. We have nothing left but a few clothes and pots and pans. I just cried and cried.

"Now we live here on the dust. We have no water. There is a tap at the bus station but they make us buy the water at Z$50,000 (1.10) for 20 litres. Where can I get money now they have stopped us selling things? My children cannot go to school as I have no address and don't know where I will be in two weeks. Everyone is sick and starving."

Some of her neighbours have turned to prostitution and she is terrified she will soon have little option but to follow them.

In most countries people would be fighting to leave such appalling conditions. But Zvikomborera organised a petition of 200 other settlers and, backed by Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, has gone to court to fight for the right to stay in the dirt. "This may not be human but I have nowhere else," she shrugged.

Among those living in the filth is a tiny baby with eyes weeping yellow pus, born right there on the ground. The infant's father, Moses, explains that when his wife went into labour last month, he ran to try to get an ambulance. But he was told: "We can't help people who live on the ground."

At another hidden location in Harare I met a group of women, all mothers of disabled children, whose homes had been smashed in front of them.

One, Mercy, explained: "When police came in the early morning and told us to get out as they would destroy our houses, I thought they would leave us as my daughter has cerebral palsy and was in a wheelchair so I did not take our possessions outside.

"But then they came and said, 'We don't care about disabled people,' and destroyed everything. My husband is a carpenter and after they smashed the house they smashed his workshop and tools so we have no means of making a living."

The family were forced to squat outside and one night her disabled daughter, 14, was bitten by rats. "No one will let us rent a place even if we had money, as my daughter's condition means she cries out all night," said Mercy.

She and her family have been informed that they must clear up the rubble of their demolished house or be fined.

People like Mercy and Zvikomborera might have had new homes. UN agencies were enraged last month when a pilot project to resettle homeless slum-dwellers in rural areas was destroyed by one of Mugabe's senior ministers. "It was supposed to be a bridge-building exercise with the government," said a UN official. "The idea was to choose a place to set up a community, then replicate it all over the country, which we would fund."

After consultations with the government, 150 families were taken to Headlands, 100 miles east of Harare, and given tents, blankets and basic sanitary facilities. A ceremony was held with government ministers.

Two weeks later Unicef officials found that all the people had disappeared and the settlement had been destroyed by police and dogs on the orders of Didymus Mutasa, the minister for security. Local villagers say the resettled people were not from the right tribe.

Now, with rains due this week, people all over the country are squatting on ground that will soon turn to mud. During 10 days of travelling across the country - working discreetly because the penalty for reporting without permission is two years' imprisonment - I met a family in Marondera, east of Harare, living in their neighbour's chicken coop next to the pile of rubble where their house once stood.

In Gwanda, in the southwest, 60 families were dumped outside the mayor's office two weeks ago. "People here are starving already," said TZ Mnkandla, the mayor. "What kind of government dumps its people around the country under the cover of night?" The government has announced a rebuilding programme but critics say the numbers projected are vastly inadequate and the new houses are going to supporters of the ruling party, Zanu-PF.

Tose Wesley Sansole, mayor of the tourist resort of Victoria Falls, said that while 6,000 homes had been destroyed, the government has promised to build only 300. So far, just 20 have materialised. "I just feel helpless," he said.

There is little doubt now that the real reason for Operation Murambatsvina was to avert any risk of an uprising in the cities after rigged parliamentary elections earlier this year.

This, after all, is a country that until five years ago not only fed itself but exported food. Justice for Agriculture, a commercial farmers' lobby group, predicts that this year Zimbabwe will produce enough food for only one month - some 200,000 tons against a minimum requirement of 1.8m.

Only about 200 commercial farms are still operating, compared with 4,500 five years ago when "war veterans" were starting to seize white-owned land. Once-fertile fields now lie scorched or weed-ridden.

If there was any doubt that Mugabe is willing to see his people starve, The Sunday Times has learnt from a company hired to rid food stores of weevils that there are WFP stocks all over the country, a year's supply of grain and 1,000 tons of corn soya blend to make fortified porridge.

Mugabe refuses to let this be distributed because he wants to retain control of the food supply. Some has been left to rot and last month more than 300 tons of bran was destroyed in Bulawayo and Harare because Mugabe believed it was genetically modified. Asked in an interview earlier this month about the hunger, Mugabe replied in Marie Antoinette vein: "Let them eat potatoes. We have plenty of potatoes."

But with the prices of basic foods spiralling out of control, it is getting harder to feed everyone. The cheapest loaf costs 62p, a daunting sum in a country where civil servants earn 15 a week. This is way below the 45 a week that the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe says an average family needs. Experts are calling Zimbabwe the fastest-shrinking economy in the world. The latest report from the UN Development Programme says it has seen the sharpest drop in quality of life of any country not at war. The quality of life is worse than in Mongolia and Equatorial Guinea, it says. Deepening poverty and widespread HIV/Aids have reduced life expectancy to 36.9 years.

The worsening economic situation could have dangerous ramifications. A third of the 40,000-strong army has been sent home on hunger leave. Augustine Chihuri, the police commissioner, told a parliamentary commission last week that his force had 1,500 vehicles instead of the 7,000 it needs and was getting petrol only "in drips and drops". Apart from the lack of fuel, which is available only on the black market at 2.20 a litre, Harare is beset by water shortages and power cuts. To the government's embarrassment, foreign delegates attending a tourism conference last weekend went without water for two days at the Sheraton hotel.

In the southern town of Masvingo, people said you could often smell the hospital from miles away because so many bodies are piled up and nobody can afford fuel to collect them from the mortuary. As if the country were going backwards in time, the government has recommissioned its steam trains and in some areas ambulances are being pulled by donkeys. The joke visitors hear is: "What did Zimbabwe have before candles? Electricity." Yet while the overwhelming majority of Zimbabweans say they have never been so poor, the elite are enjoying undreamt of wealth.

Only minutes from Zvikomborera's hovel on Tsiga Grounds, I counted two brand-new lime green Volkswagen Beetle cabriolets and several shiny new Mercedes-Benzes. Many of Mugabe's cronies have launched lucrative schemes. All Zimbabweans with vehicles have been ordered to buy new numberplates by the end of this year, for instance. The only numberplate factory in the country is owned by Solomon Mujuru, the former army chief and husband of Mugabe's vice-president, Joyce Mujuru. Government officials are also reaping dividends from access to US dollars at an official rate a quarter of the market rate - and to fuel at a quarter of the black market price. One official explained. "I get 100 litres of fuel at Z$23,000. I sell it on the black market for Z$100,000 a litre.

I then use the money I made to buy US dollars at the official rate of Z$26,000. I sell those dollars on the market for Z$105,000. What is it you say? Quids in!" But the government is running out of friends. Even China and South Africa are tiring of bailing Mugabe out. Traditional sources of foreign exchange - tobacco and tourism - have been destroyed and mining products such as gold are increasingly being smuggled out of the country, leaving the regime to resort to theft. Seven banks have been closed and their assets seized. Fearing expulsion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the government made a surprise payment of 68m last month, allegedly after raiding the foreign currency accounts of a number of big companies.

This left those companies unable to buy imports and some have been forced to close. So concerned is the IMF that it is sending a mission to investigate the source of the funds. It may all be coming to an end. A leaked internal police report warned last week that worsening economic hardships were fast eroding the patience of long-suffering Zimbabweans. The report revealed that the Joint Operations Command (JOC), which comprises the police, the Central Intelligence Organisation and the army, has drawn up a list of 55 political and civic leaders it regards as the "most dangerous individuals", who must be kept under surveillance to ensure they do not organise an uprising.

Edmore Veterai, the police representative on the JOC, wrote: "We must not fool ourselves by believing that the situation is normal on the ground because we risk being caught unawares. People have grown impatient with the government, which they accuse of causing their problems and doing nothing to alleviate them and they will do anything to remove it from power."

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