Zimbabwe feature: Bringing back glamour in Harare among least of evicted residents' concerns

HARARE - It is the hopeless faces of hungry children hurdled around a fire built on the filthy black tarmac that is most touching.

Tonight will be the eighth the children and their parents will spend out in the open here at Harare's Mbare-Musika bus terminus since the wood and plastic cabins - the only homes for many of these children since birth - were burnt down in a police blitz on shanties and informal traders that began two weeks ago.

"We have nowhere to go," a middle-aged looking man stepped in to explain on noticing our news crew trying to strike up a conversation with the kids warming themselves by the fire.

Without prompting, the man, who later identified himself as Garikayi Chihwayi, immediately began narrating how his wife and two young children ended up stuck here at the bus terminus without shelter or a means of livelihood.

"Word came that the police were destroying all (living) cabins and my wife and myself had to rush back home to salvage our household furniture before it was all burnt," said Chihwayi - anger unmistakable in his trembling voice.

Dropping his voice to a whisper, almost as if speaking to himself, he added: "It turned out the police started by destroying street side market stalls before the cabins and by the time we returned, all goods at our vending stall had been destroyed - now I am here, broke and with no money to take my family to our rural home."

But even if he had the money to pay for bus fare to his rural home in Rusape about 200km away, Chihwayi and his family would probably still be stuck here as most rural buses are grounded because of an acute shortage of fuel, itself only one among a slits of key commodities in short supply in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabweans have grappled severe economic hardships and poverty with shortages of food, essential medical drugs, electricity and other basic commodities since the beginning of an economic recession now in its sixth successive year.

But for the Chihwayis and fellow displaced families here at Mbare, the world literally collapsed last week when they were left with neither shelter nor livelihoods after the makeshift cabins they lived in and their informal market stalls were destroyed in the highly unpopular government clean-up campaign now in its second week.

Heavily armed police have used bulldozers and fire to raze down flea market stalls and the plastic and wood cabins in Harare and other cities in a campaign the government says is meant to rid cities and towns of filth and crime.

The government says the campaign is also meant to smash an illegal black-market which it says was thriving among informal traders and had become the source of nearly every useful commodity in Zimbabwe, from industrial machine parts to sugar to birth control pills.

But human rights and church groups say while the government exercise may be noble in intention, the state has used unnecessarily excessive and brutal force in evicting informal traders and people living in makeshift homes.

Zimbabwe Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace director Alois Chaumba said: "The behaviour of the members of the police who are taking part in this operation is excessively violent and lacks respect for human beings.

"We suggest that this operation, which has spread to other centres throughout the country, be stopped while concerned councils find other areas to place people."

In a statement this week, world human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, criticised the operation saying the police had flagrantly disregarded human rights and the dignity of homeless people in carrying out the evictions.

The main opposition Movement for Democratic Change party, which controls cities, has accused the government of launching the blitz to punish urban residents for rejecting it during last March's disputed election.

The government has denied violating human rights or being motivated by politics and says the operation was long overdue to restore cleanliness, law and order in cities. Defending the police blitz on informal traders and shanty dwellers President Robert Mugabe told a central committee meeting of his ruling ZANU PF party that it was necessary to restore the beauty of Harare and other cities.

But for Chihwayi and other displaced people here at Mbare-Musika, the aesthetic qualities of Harare are certainly the least of their worries as the desperate father put it when asked to list some of the problems the families were facing which could be highlighted to aid groups willing to help.

"We have not had a decent meal since seven days ago, the adults can manage but it is unbearable watching the young ones crying for food," he said.