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

  • Unrivalled destruction besets Zimbabwe
    The Big Issue, Namibia
    By Chipo Chogwadi
    August 2005

    Just before the turnoff to Caledonia Farm we pass an open area fringed with long grass and piles of garbage strewn close to the roadside. We veer off the narrow tar road onto a gravel road. It is dusty and very bumpy. Further along the road we pass makeshift houses put together with strips of corrugated iron, bricks and plastic. Some of the houses are made of cement blocks. At first, we mistake the haphazard collection of housing for Caledonia Farm, but we soon realise our mistake. A short distance away there are a few more houses made of cement blocks still under construction. According to a painted sign they are part of the Mabvuka-Tafara Housing Cooperative.

    We continue along the winding dusty road and finally catch sight of row upon row of tents and makeshift shelters in the distance. There is an elderly policewoman sitting on a chair meters away from the campsite. She stands to attention as our car approaches and so we slow down and stop beside her. She asks who we are and what we are doing there. We explain that we are part of the delegation that arrived ahead of us and we are here to donate packages to the residents of the camp. She takes down the number plate of the car and then our names and passport numbers and allows us to proceed.

    Standing tall and isolated in the dusty ground on the left are huge green cylindrical plastic containers with UNICEF printed along the side. Over 15 feet in height they are containers of safe drinking water for residents of Caledonia Farm. Ten thousand litres of water a day are provided for residents at this holding camp.

    Caledonia Farm described as a temporary transit holding camp was hastily set up to provide space for some of the men, women and children displaced by Operation Murambatsvina, or Operation Restore Order, as the government has named it. Literally translated murambatsvina means ‘drive out trash’, an expression that is clearly meant to signify that the ‘rubbish’ is unwanted and needs to be purged. The Zimbabwe public have dubbed it Tsunami – completely destructive and leaving chaos behind.

    In a clearing empty of trees, shrubs or grass there are a couple of rows of olive green tents. The orderly rows join up with more shelters, which are more unkempt. Plastic sheets, pieces of wood, corrugated iron sheets, and pieces of cloth are pieced together to form small square structures. Broken chairs, baskets, bits of fencing and wire are scattered about. Two very young children play in the sand and their clothes smudged with dirt. There is a woman beside them braiding her hair. Close by two women sit in a cramped space behind a barricade of sheets and cook a pot of watery sadza (porridge) on an open fire. Their other pots and pans are lying on the ground.

    Behind the row upon row of crudely constructed tents the ground slopes down and there is the sight of boxes the size of telephone booths that serve as toilets for approximately 4500 men, women and children camped at Caledonia Farm.

    According to a news report, a member of the group of South African church leaders who visited Caledonia Farm strongly voiced their disgust. "People are living in the most appalling and shocking conditions. We saw people living in small plastic shacks… it is one of the worst and most inhuman conditions that people can be subjected to."

    Inhabitants of Caledonia Farm are joined by hundreds of displaced Zimbabweans around the country who are now reduced to living out in the open. As the sun sets and dusk creeps there are fires along the grassy edges of road leading to different areas or just out in the open vleis. People on the farm gather around the fires to keep themselves warm. They are surrounded by their beds, wardrobes, chairs pots and pans.

    These people are the casualties of Operation Murambatsvina, which started on 18 May this year. Throughout Zimbabwe and without warning, police descended on vendors, traders and tuckshop owners destroying their property, grabbing their wares and arresting some of the traders. Initially many of the people resisted but the brutality and violence of the police resulted in the clashes quietening down.

    Siyaso Market in Mbare, Harare, where one could purchase a nail, a window frame, car tyres and even a VCR, was once a chaotic, teeming trading area with an assorted collection of craftsmen. Carpenters, builders, mechanics and daring thieves all plied their professions and their wares in this familiar and sometimes unsafe area. Operation Murambatsvina left it a barren wasteland with just mountains of rubbish positioned around in piles.

    Addressing a ZANU-PF Central Committee session a week after Operation Restore Order, President Robert Mugabe said: "Our cities and towns have deteriorated to levels that were a real cause of concern. Apart from the failing reticulation systems and broken roads and streets, our cities and towns, including Harare, the capital had become havens for illicit and criminal practices and activities which just could not be allowed to go on."

    The so-called clean up campaign only took a sinister overtone when bulldozers moved into suburbs to raze brick and mortar constructions and wooden prefabricated sheds where people were living. The devastation left people bewildered, shocked and helpless.

    Hundreds of people converged on bus terminals with their few possessions. What they could not carry they sold for a pitiful amount. On reaching the growth points they found themselves stranded, as there was no fuel to transport them and their goods to their rural homes. Those who could not afford transport and find fuel, hired lorries. Sights of trucks overloaded with furniture and people travelling to rural areas became a feature of the Zimbabwean landscape.

    The Zimbabwe Bishop Catholics Conference was swift in its condemnation of Operation Restore Order: "Any claim to justify this operation in view of a desired orderly end becomes totally groundless in view of the cruel and inhumane means that have been used. People have a right to shelter and that has been deliberately destroyed in this operation without much warning. While we all desire orderliness, alternative accommodation and sources of income should have been identified and provided before the demolitions and stoppage of informal trading."

    The Combined Harare Residents Organisation (CHRA) similarly disagreed with the reasons cited by the government: "The idea that Zimbabweans are better off living in the open, alongside roads, in holding camps or in pole-and-dagga huts in the rural areas is laughable. Not even this regime would pretend that. If then, as it claims, the regime was motivated by a desire to improve the circumstances of the urban poor, it would have embarked upon a house building programme that put new housing in place before the demolitions occurred. If, as they now claim, the regime will build adequate numbers of housing in the next two months, why did they not embark on such a massive programme prior to the destruction," the group questioned.

    The ensuing outcry of local, regional and international civic organisations and pressure from groups such as the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights culminated in a visit by a UN special envoy, Anna Tibaijuka, executive director of Habitat. UN-HABITAT is the agency within the UN that has been charged with the responsibility for managing human settlements development.

    Days before her planned visit the government launched Operation Garikai and pledged Z$3 billion towards a reconstruction programme. Critics such as CHRA question that and point out the discrepancies.

    "The regime claims it will spend Z$3 billion on the re-building exercise. The money has not been budgeted. Current domestic debt is Z$10 trillion. The 2005 budget is Z$27.5 trillion against revenues of Z$23 trillion – the budget deficit is anticipated to be as much as 15% of GDP. Government has already provided Z$2.8 trillion in its Productive Sector Facility. It has also borrowed Z$200 billion for its Parastatal and Local Authorities Reorientation Programme. It needs as much as Z$5 trillion for food imports this year. It will result in an accelerated inflation rate."

    The group explained that the cost of building a two-room core house, excluding services, would be more than Z$100 million, thus Z$3000 trillion would cater for 30 000 houses.

    "Given that hundreds and thousands of citizens have been made homeless, 30 000 houses do not begin to address the demand. At any rate, it is patently obvious that the regime does not have the capacity to build anywhere near this number of houses. At the peak of investment in public sector housing (1981) government spent some Z$300 billion (in 2004 estimates); in 2003, it had dropped to Z$1,6 billion."

    School attendance in affected areas ahs gone down from class sizes of 40 to 50, to 20 to 30. In other areas such as Dzivaraseka Extension and Hatcliffe, enrolment in primary school has gone up due to influx of evictees from in and around Harare. In Kambuzuma, Highfield and Rugare, children are reported to go to school from the streets on empty stomachs. Some teachers have been evictees, which impacts on the quality of services offered to affected schools. There are no educational facilities in transit camps.

    There are increasing numbers of reports of rejection of displaced families as they return to the rural areas for ‘resettlement’. There have been reports of resettled families or individuals being rejected by chiefs under the pretext that, given their exposure to the ‘fast life’/immorality in the urban areas, they will bring AIDS out into the rural communities. Furthermore, the current high levels of stress and trauma, there is a risk that adults prioritise their own survival as opposed to the well being of their children.

    The destruction exercise is still continuing as businesses and residents of middle- and higher income areas are being targeted. The physical, financial and emotional costs can only be accurately assessed when the ‘clean up’ stops, and as yet the authorities have not indicated when or where they will stop.

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