Zimbabwe: Mass clearances hit smallest towns

While the spotlight has been on the destruction of homes in the cities, people are being displaced all across the country.
By IWPR staff in southern Africa (Africa Reports No 37, 30-Jun-05)

Most stories about Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe's campaign to clear and destroy whole swathes of "illegal" housing have come out of the capital Harare and the other major city, Bulawayo.

But Operation Murambatsvina (Drive Out the Rubbish) has been countrywide, affecting small towns as well as cities.

An IWPR contributor who visited Victoria Falls in the northwest of the country heard the same kind of stories from dispossessed people now struggling to survive.

In Victoria Falls, once a major attraction for foreigners, the owner of a tourist craft village who wante only to be known as "F" told IWPR of troops in armoured vehicles destroying homes and small businesses.

"Some of you have heard about [Operation Murambatsvina] on the news, but others didn't realise it hit our little town too," said F.

"On a Friday, our African townships were invaded by armoured vehicles and dozens of troops with metal helmets and batons, and they burnt every single house that was not concrete - wooden houses, lean-tos, shacks - smashing windows as they went," he said.

In particular, F told how the authorities destroyed homes built for the traditional dancers who entertained tourists who once flocked to the region. He said that five years ago, the village had paid the local council to connect it to the water and sewerage networks and build wooden houses for the dancers, who had no homes of their own.

Though they were able to halt the demolition after appealing to the council, and began repairing some of the damage, several days later the police came back.

"One of the dancers rushed to the shop to say two armoured cars and 20 police were smashing... and burning everything," said F.

"Naturally we couldn't get hold of the police chief or anybody in council, so we just took our truck and tried to salvage as much as we could. Now we sit with 80 or so people with no roof over their heads and nowhere to go."

Commenting on the wider campaign of demolition he saw in the Victoria Falls area, F said, "I wept to see such utter destruction. To see thousands of homeless in this cold winter of ours, with their belongings piled up alongside somebody's home, mattresses, blankets, furniture, stoves, fridges, wardrobes and hundreds of small children all staring wide-eyed at what was happening - it was all too sad even to describe.

"What is so sad is to buy a wooden home costs millions [of Zimbabwean dollars]. To replace the glass in windows smashed and the roofing asbestos sheets smashed - we are looking at about 80 million per home, which we don't have.

"Why they had to smash and burn everything, nobody knows."

F once again set about making repairs to his village, and soon everyone at least had a roof over their heads, though with some sharing. Some staff, however, had to be sent back to their rural homes, F said, and one older woman was put into a home for the elderly.

If Operation Murambatsvina continues, F fears that everyone will eventually have to return to their native villages.

"We will have no traditional village and no traditional dancing for the tourists, who we hope will return soon. Now we hear the police are chasing people away who are sharing accommodation, and even if you are staying in somebody's kitchen you have to go."

Eight hundred kilometres away, high in the eastern highlands on the Mozambique border, Mutare provides another case-study of the many small towns where homes have been torn down and livelihoods destroyed.

Mutare is one of the coldest areas in Zimbabwe and the Red Cross of Zimbabwe is setting up tents for the estimated 120,000 people who have been displaced there.

The Standard, an independent weekly, described how ten-year-old Takudzwa Taroyiwa died of pneumonia after spending nights in the open following the destruction of his family home by police in Mutare.

Enock Nhongo told the paper how his wife Chido also died of pneumonia, leaving behind a five-month-old baby, after her home was flattened. Nhongo said although his wife had not been feeling well, her illness worsened after she was exposed to the winter temperatures.

"My baby son is now surviving on bottled milk and sleeping in the open like us grown-ups," he said.