Monday, September 19, 2005

Operation Murambatsvina - The Suffering Continues

Sokwanele Report: 15 September 2005

In her report of 18th July the UN Special Envoy, Mrs Anna Tibaijuka, concluded "Operation Murambatsvina has precipitated a humanitarian crisis of immense proportions." After noting the 700,000 people who had had lost either their homes, their sources of livelihood or both, and the further 2.4 million indirectly affected in varying degrees, she added:

"The humanitarian consequences … are enormous. It will take several years before the people and society as a whole can recover. There is an immediate need for the Government of Zimbabwe to recognise the virtual state of emergency that has resulted, and to allow unhindered access by the international and humanitarian community to assist those who have been affected. Priority needs include shelter and non-food items, food and health support services."

Rather than acknowledging their despicable crime the Mugabe regime has tried to rubbish the Special Envoy's report. Rather than setting up a massive relief operation they prefer to remove the damning evidence from sight by the simple expedient of forcing the unfortunate victims out from the towns where their homes and premises were destroyed into rural wastelands. Yet notwithstanding their shrill denial and the urgent cover-up, it seems that Mugabe for one is not convinced that the bluff will work. Only this week he withdrew the invitation to Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, to come and see for himself.

In order to re-visit one of the sites of massive destruction and assess the continuing cost in terms of human suffering, one of our reporters travelled to Victoria Falls this week. Despite being mentally prepared for the worst he was still shocked by what he saw there, and the stories he heard first-hand from some of the victims and those in the community, particularly the local pastors, who have taken up their cause.

The ZANU PF blitzkrieg swept through the town on May 30th. In July a team of five pastors from Bulawayo, who were already providing food and shelter to over a thousand victims in their own city, made a "solidarity visit" to their colleagues in Victoria Falls. This visit helped to strengthen the resolve of the church leaders in Victoria Falls whose courage had failed them for a moment when one of their number was arrested by the police for expressing too close an interest in the plight of the homeless. Now the pastors from the two centres visited the ZRP together. The initial reception to their visit was hostile and suspicious but eventually the pastors won a grudging measure of respect, for the police gave them permission to move through the devastated areas, talk to the victims and assess the level of pastoral need. What they saw disturbed them profoundly.

Chinotimba is an established, high-density township. It comprises several hundred long-standing dwellings occupied by settled tenants. Such was the extent of the housing shortage in the town however that on almost every plot there was - before the Mugabe tsunami - a temporary shack standing alongside the authorised dwelling. Every shack was occupied by a local resident who would otherwise have been homeless. When Mugabe's storm troops moved through the area they destroyed every shack in their path. The pastors could see the outcome for themselves. In every remaining small, two-bedroomed house they visited they found at least 3 families - a minimum of ten people crowded into each. And adjacent to each house, in the open, where once a temporary shelter had stood, they discovered fifteen or so homeless people would creep back in the evening to sleep. In many cases these were the same tenants who had now lost what limited protection they once enjoyed from the cold and damp.

The team of pastors observed that many of those living in these squalid, overcrowded conditions and sleeping under the stars, were sick. Some, they were told, had already died of exposure. During their visit to one home they found a corpse awaiting collection for burial.

Next the pastors visited "DRC", a new township in the making. Prior to Operation Murambatsvina the plots had already been allocated to tenants. Water and sewage services had been connected up. The tenants had been granted leases and were paying rent for the sites while they started building their approved houses. Given the harsh economic conditions prevailing it was not surprising that for most the rate of progress was slow. When any money or materials was available they would buy what they could and proceed with the building. The erection of the structures went on piecemeal and more slowly than the tenants would have wished, but that was hardly their fault. The pastors were shown some of the rent cards issued by the local authority. Their evolving structures were formally approved and legal. Yet again when Mugabe's uniformed thugs came to the site they flattened every single structure, however far construction had proceeded. Approximately 2,000 people were affected by this violent and unlawful action in this area alone.

In other residential areas adjacent to the small commercial centre of the town the pastors encountered some 350 now homeless residents whose dwellings had been smashed and burnt to the ground. Again these people were the legal owners of the dwellings. Not only were they able to produce legal documents establishing their title; they also had receipts for the rent paid. When the pastors interviewed them in mid winter they were sleeping out in the open. They were, observed the pastors, very bitter at the government which had treated them in this callous, inhuman (and illegal) fashion.

In the pastors' own assessment some 4,000 dwellings and places of work were destroyed in Victoria Falls during Operation Murambatsvina. (In our earlier report of June 15 we estimated the number rendered homeless at 60,000)

Such was the level of suffering in the community uncovered by the church leaders in July. In the ensuing weeks the pastors from Bulawayo remained in contact with their counterparts in Victoria Falls, and towards the end of August they made a further visit to the once prosperous holiday resort. They found that the plight of the homeless was even worse than on their first visit.

This time the pastors discovered that, following further sweeps of the townships by Mugabe's thugs, many of the homeless had retreated to the bush two or three kilometres outside the town. There they found close to a thousand homeless men, women and children sleeping rough in the bush. These poor people had no shelter, food, water or toilet facilities. Most were unemployed but some were still trying to hold down a job in the town while living in these appalling and unsanitary conditions. All were at risk from the wild life that occasionally strayed through the bush, including monkeys, baboons, buffalo and elephants. Experience had taught them that the buffalo were most to be feared. Again those reduced to this pitiful existence expressed great bitterness and anger at the government which had visited this misery upon them.

The pastors were also shown over three warehouses in the small industrial area adjacent to Victoria Falls. To their horror they discovered that the warehouses had been converted from industrial to residential use - unofficially. Each warehouse had now become home to a large number of otherwise homeless men who were still in employment. The minimum number in each was 45. Access to the warehouses was barred to all women, including wives and family members. Any females seen in the vicinity were immediately chased away. When the men of God who visited these dismal premises raised questions about the impact of such living conditions upon family life and public morality, they received no satisfactory answers. Word was that the owner of the warehouses has demanded $ 4 million per month for each, saying how the money was raised and how many men had to be crowded in to achieve this return, was not his concern. The whole operation is of course totally illegal.

The pastors who spoke to our reporter were clearly angry and disgusted by the conditions to which the victims of Operation Murambatsvina have been subjected. They were also deeply concerned for the future welfare of these people. On the surface it might appear that the situation has improved because there are only a few people still living in the bush now. But this is only because of the regime's forced repatriation programme which has seen over 900 of those previously living in the bush around the town, moved back to their so-called "rural homes", the link with which in many cases is no more than a name on an identity document. Food packs were supplied by the church to some of the homeless before their forcible removal, but these will only last a few weeks at best. And then what?

What provision has been made by this heartless regime - indeed what provision will they allow others (who do have a heart) to make - for the tens of thousands of victims now being unceremoniously dumped in remote rural areas, without food, water, shelter or employment?

Anna Tibaijuka was right. The humanitarian consequences of this despicable programme of destruction and forced migration are enormous, and it will take several years before the people and society as a whole can recover. What is more, that time will only begin to run once the issue is addressed seriously by those in power and there is a massive, coordinated response to the humanitarian disaster. And that process has not yet even begun.