JOHANNESBURG, 6 July (IRIN) - The Zimbabwean government has continued with its programme of demolishing illegal homes, despite urgent calls by aid workers to halt the operation.
In Epworth, an old settlement of around 300,000 people 15 km east of the capital, Harare, residents began destroying their own homes on Tuesday rather than pay a fee of US $150 per room if the job was done by government bulldozers.
Aid workers told IRIN that the walls of houses and kiosks due for demolition had been daubed with a large cross by police and local authority officials, in an operation affecting over half the residents.
With no transport available to the designated transit camp of New Caledonia, 20 km east of Harare, or back to their rural areas, the displaced people were left to fend for themselves out in the open in the cold of mid-winter.
"The situation is bad and we don't know what to do - the people are desperate," said one NGO official who asked not to be named.
"There has been no assistance since the operation started; people need transport to their rural areas, food to eat and tents. Now it's very cold at night," he added.
The initial clearance operation in Epworth began on 20 June with the demolition of newer sections of the settlement, leaving around 12,000 people homeless.
On Monday the police moved into the centre of Epworth and began marking structures deemed illegal, although one aid worker alleged this was done at the discretion of individual officers rather than city council housing plans.
The target was extensions to legal homes, "cottages" built by property-owners for renting out to tenants, the main market and individual kiosks.
Residents in the older section of Epworth said they had been given seven days to tear down their houses before the bulldozers moved in; those in newer parts of the settlement were told they could expect a final visit from the authorities anytime this week.
"These [homes] had no approved planning, but for poor people - and considering the semi-rural nature of Epworth - this was housing that could be easily formalised; they were not shacks," an aid worker said.
The government has argued that its cleanup programme, which has displaced 370,000 people, is part of an urban renewal strategy that will eventually build 10,000 homes at a cost of $300 million. For the moment it wants people cleared from illegal settlements to move to New Caledonia or transit centres in the eastern city of Mutare, and a yet to be established facility in Bulawayo in the south of the country.
From the transit centres people are supposed to move on to their rural areas, or alternative locations, but for more than a month the vast majority have remained in the temporary holding camps.
Critics point out that new housing should have been provided before the demolitions began; most people, with little opportunity to make a living in the rural areas, have chosen to stay put in their communities even after their houses were destroyed.
"Discussions between the UN and the government are ongoing to see if we can get funds to assist the people," said Mohammed Abdiker, director of the International Organisation for Migration in Zimbabwe, which is providing limited relief to people in the transit centres.
"The humanitarian crisis is dire - we need to do something as soon as possible to provide assistance to the people displaced," he added.
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