In mid-May 2005, the police started demolishing
what they described as "illegal structures" mostly in high density
suburbs and informal settlements around Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe.
The operation within no time spread like wildfire to other towns, growth
points, service centres and some shops in the rural areas were also demolished
in the process.
Initially no one was quite clear what the operation, now described as a "tsunami", was meant to achieve. The government alleged it was to rid Zimbabwean cities of illegal structures and combat the rising crime rate. The exercise continued, leaving families living rough during Zimbabwe's winter, from June to September where temperatures regularly drop to 5 degrees Celsius. Families were not even allowed to put up tents as these were also dubbed illegal structures by the authorities.
In July 2005 the United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, sent special envoy Ms Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, the Executive Director of UN-Habitat as his Special Envoy for Human Settlement Issues to Zimbabwe to study the situation and compile a report detailing what was going on. Her report alleged that as many as 700,000 families were made homeless, a figure described as excessive by the Zimbabwean government.
In response to Ms Kajumulo Tibaijuka's findings, the Government changed the operation's name from "Restore Order" to "Live Well". Houses building began in some areas where people had once lived "illegally". Government spokespersons claimed that the illegal structures were been destroyed so as to improve the quality of available housing. The new homeless were asked to go back to their rural homes or to register to be allocated newly built housing and small shops. However, even though people were being registered and names of beneficiaries were appearing in newspapers, these were said to be mainly members of the police, army and state security. Ordinary people complained of being ignored, after having been promised housing and small shops. Everybody wondered why the new housing had not been built before the "illegal structures" were demolished.
In cooperation with the Inter-Regional Meeting of Bishop's of Southern Africa (IMBISA), Catholic Commission for Peace and Justice (CCJP), and Catholic Development Commission (CADEC National), JRS Zimbabwe decided to provide assistance to displaced families living in Epworth, 50 kilometres southeast of Harare. Many families had settled in this area after the war of independence in the 1970's. They had fled the violence and insecurity of rural Zimbabwe. After the war, these people never returned to their rural homes preferring to remain in Epworth.
Individuals were trained to collect data from those whose houses had been demolished. Information was gathered on family size, current residency and former residence, former occupation and type of assistance required. All those interviewed indicated a need of shelter, blankets and food. About 10% of the close to 4,000 people indicated their desire to return to their former rural residences and requested financial support to do so.
With assistance from the International Organisation for Migration and the Islamic Society, trucks were hired to move willing families to their rural homes and each family was given two blankets, mealie meal (corn based food) and cooking oil. Most of these families previously ran small commercial outlets. However, the authorities were by now arresting and fining anyone found trading with a permit while their merchandise were being confiscated. Although short term, i.e. June, July and August, the assistance went a long way in bringing relief to these people.
Many accepted that something needed to be done to improve the quality of housing in urban areas. Nevertheless, they were incensed that no warning was given before the demolition took place, despite the existence of a law requiring three months' notice be given. Now, five months after the beginning of the operation, families are still living rough and children have been born homeless. Many of these people say they have no rural homes to go to. Some who have gone to the rural areas are finding life there very hard, as it is difficult for them to get food. This year's harvest in Zimbabwe was very poor and many rural dwellers are need of food aid. In fact some of them have returned to the cities even though they have no homes there.
Those who are happy to remain rural areas at the very least will require seed packs so that they can grow their own food. The majority who have remained in urban areas still need shelter and assistance to start their own small businesses. Most are unable to pay their children's school fees which the Ministry of Education recently increased a thousand fold.
In response to their desperate plight JRS contacted the Epworth authorities to find out what plans they have provide shelter and assistance for the 15,000 who find themselves homeless. The authorities outlined its intention to build 100 houses for some of the homeless people. They also have plans to build 1,000 small shops and sell these to some of the affected people. However it was disheartening to be told that the authorities have only raised Z$200million, a little less than 6,700 Euro, for this purpose. It is also difficult to begin thinking of providing these people with means of starting income generating projects when they have nowhere to stay.