HARARE, 14 June (IRIN) - Around 190,000 homes have been destroyed and thousands arrested in the operation to clean up Zimbabwe's cities and towns, leaving many of those affected unable to find proper shelter or food.
Authorities claimed the operation, launched on 19 May, was aimed at ridding urban areas of informal flea markets and illegal residential shacks and houses, saying they had become a haven for criminal activities. About 30 housing schemes, set up by war veterans after the fast-track land redistribution programme commenced in 2000, have also been demolished.
Mike Davis, chairman of the Combined Harare Residents' Association (CHRA), said the majority of those affected by the clean-up operation were now living in desperate conditions.
"The thousands of 'Operation Murambatsvina's' victims are now living under deplorable conditions: they have been reduced to virtual refugees in their own country, with the only difference being that there is no one who is looking into their plight," Davis told IRIN.
"In fact, by destroying their homes and saying they were illegal, the government has made the problem worse because most of these poor people are now squatters," he pointed out.
The Zimbabwe Red Cross have been involved in providing sanitation facilities at Caledonia Farm, where a large number of families are currently in transit.
Ignatius Chombo, the Minister of Local Government, and Witness Mangwende, metropolitan governor of Harare, the capital, and the nearby Chitungwiza township, have both said residential areas have been identified for resettling those displaced by the operation.
Mangwende recently invited people to apply for residential stands on White Cliff Farm, about 20 km west of Harare, where hundreds of families had been illegally allocated stands by war veterans who occupied the farm in 2000.
However, Davis doubts that the government will be able to provide alternative shelter to those affected by the exercise.
"The government does not have the capacity to resettle about 200,000 people overnight - with the national housing backlog standing at more than 2 million, who would believe that so many people can be offered houses in a month or so?" asked Davis.
He questioned why formal housing was not provided for those affected by the clean up before the government destroyed their homes.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to housing, Miloon Kothari, recently appealed to the authorities to halt the mass forced evictions, and reminded the government of Zimbabwe that various resolutions by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights clearly state that "the practice of forced eviction constitutes a gross violation of human rights".
An alliance comprising the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, the National Constitutional Assembly and other civil society organisations recently organised a poorly supported two-day stayaway to protest against Operation Murambatsvina.
Lucy Mwanza, a former resident of Mbare, one of Harare's oldest suburbs, was among the 40 families the government has moved to a holding camp at Caledonia Farm.
"I volunteered to move here [Caledonia Farm] when the police told us we would stay here until alternative shelter was found for us," Mwanza told IRIN.
"However, all they did was just to come and dump us here and we have not heard from them since then. Just like the other families that were brought here, my five children and I were forced to set up two shacks using plastic and cardboard boxes, but the cold is unbearable at night," she said.
Caledonia Farm lacks proper sanitation and, although there are several communal taps, residents say they suffer frequent water cuts.
Police chief superintendent Edmore Veterai has said affected people should go back to "wherever they came from", but Mwanza has known no home other than Mbare.
Her parents were Malawian migrant workers and she was born and wed to her now deceased husband in Mbare, where her family lived in a backyard cottage.
After the death of her husband, Mwanza survived by selling scrap metal in a nearby informal market that was also destroyed in the clean up, depriving and Mwanza of her only source of income. She can no longer afford to send her children to school.
"Nearby schools have said they are fully enrolled but then, would my children be able to cope, given the fact that they sleep in the open and would be ridiculed by fellow pupils aware of their plight? My plan is to have them continue with school next year if the situation gets better," she said.
Some of the families made homeless are now camped in open spaces close to their previous homes, where they have set up makeshift shelters.
A few metres away from the Matapi police station in Mbare, Samuel Togara has put up a rough shelter and has vowed to stay there until the "government finds me somewhere to go".
"Police details from the station have been threatening to burn my belongings, but I told them they should find me somewhere to stay with my wife and three children, even if it meant going into the detention cells. They stopped visiting me a week ago," said Togara.
"I am employed as a shop attendant in town and that is my source of income. Even though I could have relocated to my rural home, where would I start? There is no land there, and with the current drought, where would I get the food to feed my family?" he asked.
His two-year old daughter caught a cold last week and Togara fears it could get worse because the extremely cold winter nights.
Although Togara will not go to his rural home, hundreds of others have done so, but have experienced problems reintegrating into their former communities.
Dickson Jaya, who was an informal trader, packed up his few belongings and took a bus to Chirumanzu district in the Midlands province after the crackdown. "I sold some of my personal belongings to raise money for transport but when I got home, I discovered that life would not be easy," Jaya told IRIN.
He has managed to find places in school for his two children, but has problems finding space to build a home.
"The headman told me that there was no space to accommodate me and advised me to approach the district administrator's office for resettlement elsewhere," said Jaya. As a result, he has no choice but to live with his parents.
"The issue of living space aside, I am cracking my head over how I will be able to find food for the family. As an informal trader, I used to send money here [to his parents] because there is drought, and if we do not get help from the government or donors we might starve," he added.
The headman, who refused to be named, told IRIN that he could not accommodate Jaya because he was afraid that he might be seen to be "too friendly" with people from the urban areas, where the MDC has traditionally enjoyed support.
"As you know, people from urban areas are viewed as being too much against the government, and I don't want to be in trouble with the politicians," he said.
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