Bulawayo. Baton-wielding police in full anti-riot gear descended on a number of churches across the city last night and into the early hours of this morning to forcibly remove several hundred homeless victims of Operation Murambatsvina still sheltering in the churches. The victims of this latest human rights outrage were awakened from sleep and bundled with their few pathetic belongings onto the back of police trucks believed to be headed for the holding camp recently established at Balu Estate just north of Bulawayo.
The first church to feel the brunt of the police assault was Agape Church in the western suburbs which had been offering shelter to over 200 of those whose homes had been destroyed in Operation Murambatsvina. The police arrived there soon after 10 pm, wearing full anti-riot gear including helmets and batons. Witnesses were appalled at the brutal way in which men, women and children were forcibly removed from the premises. The pastor of Agape Church, Pastor Lucky Moyo, was visibly angered and distressed by the unlawful intrusion of the police onto church premises and the ruthless treatment meted out to poor, defenceless people now forcibly removed for the second time within a space of a few weeks.
The police continued the removal operation through the night, only arriving at the City Presbyterian Church at 4 a.m. this morning and the City Baptist Church some hours later. Their objective was clearly to remove all the remaining internally displaced victims of what has been called the "Mugabe Tsunami" from the churches to a holding centre where they are less visible and access to them can be more easily controlled. This move coincides with a recent tightening up of security at the Balu Estate. On Tuesday a Bulawayo pastor who was visiting his parishioners at the holding centre was interrupted in the course of a service of worship and ejected from the site. The authorities administering the camp even refused him permission to return and collect his Bible. The holding centre is now effectively off bounds to pastors and representatives of the Church.
Fr Barnabas Nqindi, the Rector of the (Anglican) Church of the Ascension, was one of those who witnessed the brutal police action at Agape Church last night. He described it as "cruel, nasty ... unbelievable". It was he said "heart rending" to see the innocent victims of the present social upheaval being carted off to face further misery. A few hours later Fr Barnabas himself was arrested and taken to the Ross Camp police centre where he was subjected to hostile interrogation and verbal abuse by police details, some of whom were so young they could hardly have been out of their teens. It was noticeable that these young interrogators wore ZRP uniforms but did not display any numbers or other identification. A number of other pastors tried to intervene on behalf of Fr Barnabas but they were chased away. Fr Barnabas was released from police custody at about 4 am and told to report back at the police station at 9 am.
Apart from the gross human rights abuses involved in their forcible removal, there are fears for the well-being of those now held at the Balu Estate Centre. The Red Cross had provided temporary accommodation in the form of 100 tents, but this latest influx will take the number of refugees to something in excess of 1100, for whom the facilities are quite inadequate. The refusal of access to the Church and the strict control of those entering and leaving the site are also matters of grave concern.
Another local pastor interviewed during this latest outrage commented, "It is utterly barbaric. If this isn't a crime against humanity, then I don't know what is. It is high time the UN (United Nations) intervened to stop these atrocities."