Government obstructs humanitarian access to displaced as new evictions loom
In May 2005, the Zimbabwean government initiated an extraordinary campaign of forced evictions and demolitions resulting in the internal displacement of an estimated 570,000 people, many of whom remain in transit camps and have limited access to assistance. The campaign, known as Operation Murambatsivina, or Operation Restore Order, targeted informal settlements and business structures in urban areas throughout the country. Providing little if any notice of impending evictions, Operation Murambatsvina was characterised by extreme violence and brutality - twenty thousand vendors were reportedly arrested, and through bulldozing, smashing and burning, homes were first destroyed in shanty towns in high-density suburbs and subsequently the operation was extended to settlements on farms in peri-urban and rural areas. More than 52 sites across Zimbabwe were affected by the operation. The motivations behind the devastating operation remains unclear - while the government maintains the operation intended to 'clean up' urban areas, a number of other explanations have surfaced, including that the operation was aimed as retribution against those who voted for the opposition, or that it was initiated over general concern over chaos and congestion in the cities or to deter a popular uprising and force people to move to rural areas. Whatever the reasoning, the operation in itself violated the fundamental human rights of those affected and exposed those displaced to further abuses. While the operation targeted supposed illegal structures, many of those displaced held valid legal title to their homes or businesses.
The Zimbabwean government continues to deliberately obstruct humanitarian agencies working in the country and continues to threaten urban dwellers and entrepreneurs with renewed evictions. Zimbabwe is characterised as a complex humanitarian situation; 24.6 per cent of Zimbabweans are estimated to be infected with HIV and there are 1.3 million orphans. Set against the backdrop of economic collapse, with an unemployment rate of 80 per cent, a political crisis, a failed land reform process that had already caused large-scale displacement, and an acute housing shortage, Operation Murambatsvina only served to exacerbate the vulnerability of the Zimbabwean population. The UN estimates that 2.4 million people, equalling 18 per cent of the population, were directly or indirectly affected by the operation. While many top UN officials and western governments condemned the operation, the silence from African leaders and governments and African regional organisations such as the African Union, continues to be a major impediment to a genuine recognition by the Zimbabwean government of the severity of the situation and the humanitarian needs.
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