BULAWAYO, 14 July (IRIN) - With a child tied on her back and a plate in her right hand, Florence Chilufya joins a winding food queue in an overcrowded yard at a township in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city.
Although children, the elderly and the terminally ill are given first preference, the 39-year-old widow is confident that she will get a helping.
"We have two meals a day: we eat in the morning and in the evening. There are many of us and, at times, if you are at the back of the queue you seem to panic, thinking that the food will get finished before you are served but everyone always gets something," Chilufya said.
She is among the estimated 375,000 left homeless by the cleanup campaign launched in mid-May, which the authorities have claimed was part of an urban renewal strategy that will eventually build 10,000 homes at a cost of US $300 million.
A former vegetable vendor and resident of an informal settlement just outside Bulawayo, Chilufya now has nowhere to go. She said she could only watch helplessly as soldiers and police officers torched her shack and confiscated her merchandise and other possessions. Her children, now displaced, have dropped out of school.
"The settlement was the only home I knew, but now the authorities have told me that I will be sent back to Zambia ... where my late parents come from. I am in a tight position and my children are now suffering. We need help".
In the meantime she is grateful to the church leaders who have given her sanctuary and food. "I am so grateful to the church people who have looked after me, my kids and the rest of the people now without shelter. They are doing a good job and may God bless them," she said.
About 1,500 affected people in Bulawayo have found temporary sanctuary with various church organisations, who told IRIN this week that the affected people were to be transferred to Hellensvale, a holding camp set up by a coalition of humanitarian and human rights NGOs about 40 km north of Bulawayo.
However, it would take a great deal of effort to convert Hellensvale into a fully-fledged holding camp. "We have been working closely with UNICEF [the UN Children's Fund] and other stakeholders, but a lot still has to be done, especially the setting-up of sanitary facilities," said a Red Cross official.
The government said affected people would only be allowed to stay at the camp for a month while they searched for accommodation in permanent settlements or were returned to their rural homes.
However, the clergy was concerned about the affected people without rural homes, especially those of foreign parentage, like Chilufya.
"Government says they should go back to their rural homes, but what happens to people of foreign origin who have not known any other home but the places in which they lived?" asked Pastor Patson Netha, chairman of a coalition of churches in Bulawayo. "It is a disturbing development but, as churches, we are working on a special programme to retain them while a lasting solution is sought."
He acknowledged that keeping more than a thousand people in churches has been a challenge, as they were battling to provide them with food, blankets and other assistance.
"It is our social responsibility to provide for the poor and fight for their rights, but keeping them at our churches has been a daunting task. In our view the displaced are victims of unjust government actions, and we just could not stand by and watch them die of hunger and cold in the rubble of their homes", Netha commented.
He noted that criminal activity was bound to rise as people struggled to survive in a ravaged economy, and was particularly concerned about the plight of children and those with HIV/AIDS, whose treatment programmes had been disrupted.
The plight of the homeless has touched many, including UN special envoy Anna Tibaijuka, who visited Zimbabwe on a recent mission to assess the impact of the cleanup campaign.
"As the UN we don't believe that you, the poor, are criminals; the poor are just disadvantaged individuals trying to eke out a living in the urban areas, and sending them back to rural areas will not work - it is a violation of the freedom of movement", said Tibaijuka in a brief speech to hundreds of displaced people living at the Agape Mission in Bulawayo.
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