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'Dust people' starve in Zimbabwe ruins
Lamb, The Sunday Times (UK)
October 23, 2005
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
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.
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
"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."
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.
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".
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
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.
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.
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,"
She and her
family have been informed that they must clear up the rubble of
their demolished house or be fined.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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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