Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Clearance Victims Left in Limbo

Migrants whose homes have been destroyed by security forces say they have nowhere to go.
By Dzikamayi Chidyausiku

Zimbabwe’s controversial urban clean-up has hit thousands of people of Malawian and Zambian origin who migrated into Zimbabwe during the colonial era to work in mines and on farms.


These people, whose homes in squatter camps and shacks in cities and towns were destroyed by the government in Operation Murambatsvina [Shona for “Drive Out the Rubbish”], are sleeping in the open. President Robert Mugabe insists that they must go back to their rural homes, but the victims of the clearances say they no longer have places to return to in their countries of origin.


Most came to Zimbabwe more than 50 years ago to find work. Their fellow victims include people who migrated more recently from Mozambique as refugees from the civil war in the 1970s and 1980s between the Frelimo and Renamo movements.


They are among the countless thousands of migrants whose shack homes have been destroyed in Operation Murambatsvina, launched by Mugabe and his ruling ZANU PF party in May. Their dire plight is particularly apparent at Porta Farm, a squatter camp 20 kilometres outside Harare, which was demolished by police and army officers in the first week of July. More than half of the 15000 people who were in Porta Camp are from Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia. Nearly all of had lived at Porta for at least ten years.


“They must just go back to wherever they came from,” said National Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri. “We must clean the country of the crawling mass of maggots bent on destroying the economy.”


One victim is 80-year-old Ganizani Banda who came to Zimbabwe as a sixteen-year-old boy to work in the mines. “ The government says we must go back to the rural area, but I don’t have one,” he told IWPR. “I left Malawi in 1941 and I have never gone back. I have not been in touch with my relatives there.” Banda said he used to work at a mine in Kadoma, 176 km southwest of Harare, before being laid off in 1985. Banda subsequently worked on a white-owned commercial farm at Chegutu, near Kadoma, until Mugabe’s land invasion campaign, beginning in 2000, drove hundreds of thousands of black farm workers and their families out of their homes and employment.


When his farmer employer had his farm confiscated, Banda moved to Porta Farm. “My whole working life was spent in Zimbabwe’s mines and on Zimbabwe’s farms,” said Banda as he looked at the wreckage of his home. “My wife [72-year-old Molly] and I don’t have homes we can go back to in Malawi.”


The irony of the destruction of Porta Farm is that it was Mugabe’s government that established the squatter camp 14 years ago to tidy up Harare ahead of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Zimbabwe for the 1991 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm).


Although Porta Camp was initially made up of people moved from Mbare, Zimbabwe’s oldest poor black ghetto, the numbers have swelled over the years as workers displaced from some 4000 white commercial farms flocked there from 2000 onwards. Retrenched and retired miners have also made their homes there.


Another Porta resident, Given Sinosi, 34, said his father came from Malawi in 1953 at the beginning of the short-lived Central African Federation, in which Britain tried to unite its colonies of Nyasaland, Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia [now Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe], and had spent his entire working life on a farm. Sinosi, born in Zimbabwe, worked on the same farm as his father as a general hand before moving to Porta in 2001 when the property was invaded.


“We don’t have any home we know other than this camp (Porta). How do they want me to go to Malawi now? I know no one there,” said Sinosi. “Telling us to go back where we came from means they are merely telling us that we are no longer wanted in Zimbabwe because we are from Malawi.” Sinosi, his wife and their seven-year-old daughter, who have been sleeping on sheets of cardboard in the open since their house was destroyed, said he had not benefited from Mugabe’s land reform programme because he, despite having been born in Zimbabwe, is classed as an alien.


The government has in the past accused the farm workers of working with white farmers to sabotage land reform. However, black Zimbabwean peasants initially used as shock troops to invade the farms with promises of land have themselves been driven off by police and soldiers to make way for government ministers, top civil servants, police and army officers and judges who have been allocated the choicest confiscated land and buildings.


Many Porta Farm residents see the government action as an ethnic cleansing campaign. They say officials are fully aware that they do not have rural homes to go back to.


The operation at Porta has claimed at least four lives since the beginning of July, according to The Independent, a weekly newspaper. Five-year-old Fanandi Mayere died under the wheels of a government truck. "The caterpillars [government bulldozers] were demolishing our house and my son ran onto the road,” said his father, Trynos Mayere. “A truck ran him over, and he died on the spot. His brains were splattered on the ground. We had to pick up his brains. Because I am his father, I had to get sand to cover the blood."


Anna Kajumalo Tibaijuka, the special envoy of United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, in the country to assess the impact of the clean-up campaign, arrived at Porta Farm as police and army officers were demolishing houses. Mounds of brick rubble, plastic sheeting, broken asbestos, iron roofing and smashed furniture were all that remained of the homes of the people. Many residents wept when they saw the envoy.


"We are dirt as far as the government is concerned," Samson Banda told Tibaijuka as she walked around the settlement talking to people who felt a mixture of anger, disillusionment and betrayal. "If you can, please ask our leaders what crime we have committed to deserve such punishment," one young woman asked the UN envoy. "They brought us here saying they would build us houses. But we have known nothing but torture and harassment for all the 16 years we have been here.” Another woman pleaded with Tibaijuka to ask the UN for help, adding, “If they can’t help us, just bury us alive."


An old woman, burning the remains of her furniture to keep warm in the short but harsh southern African winter, pleaded with some of the UN officials to talk to government to spare them. "I am upset by what I have seen here, but please remain calm,” Tibaijuka told the homeless residents. “We are going to work together, just be patient. The secretary general is much concerned, that is why he sent me here. We are definitely going to do something about the issue, but we cannot solve the problem at once.”


The situation at Porta, which looks as though it has been destroyed in an aerial bombing raid, mirrors what is happening throughout the country. Most aliens are second generation immigrants holding Zimbabwean citizenship by virtue of their birth. They had worked on mines and farms and in factories until the economy began collapsing in 1998, followed by the farm invasions which accelerated economic disintegration.


Mike Zhuwawo, 54, originally from Mozambique, said he crossed into Zimbabwe at the peak of the civil war in the 1980s and settled at Porta in 1993. He said he could not see how he could now begin a new life in Mozambique. “Zimbabwe has become my home. I don’t think it’s a crime that we are living in shacks. It’s poverty,” he said. “Where do I start if I go back?”


Sitembile Samaneka, 29, born in Zimbabwe of Malawian parents, came to Porta Farm at the age of 15. Widowed three years ago, she looks after her own five children and her dead brother's deaf and dumb son. "I would rather they killed me here as they once threatened earlier," she lamented. "Where do I take all my children? I have never been to Malawi and they insist I should go where I originally came from."


Despite the huge humanitarian crisis, which has exacerbated food shortages and an HIV/AIDS epidemic that has infected one in four of the adult population, the government has remained adamant that it intends ridding the cities of “criminal elements” who it accuses of destroying the economy as a part of an anti-Zimbabwe plot by British premier Tony Blair, Mugabe’s favourite hate figure.


However, Mugabe is also angered with the people of Zimbabwe’s cities and towns for having voted against ZANU PF in parliamentary elections last March. Although the party won an election widely believed to have been rigged, urban constituencies voted so overwhelmingly for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, that it was impossible to falsify the results.


Mugabe accused the aliens of being major supporters of the MDC. He said they were unpatriotic because they refused to share ZANU PF’s vision: because they had not been part of the liberation struggle against white rule, and had instead “contaminated” locals. Deputy Industry Minister Fineas Chihota told parliament last month that most town dwellers were not Zimbabweans. He added that ninety per cent of MDC MPs “are not indigenous and the constituencies they talked about in towns and cities have no identity and recognition” – an apparent reference to Zimbabwean citizens whose ancestors originated in neighbouring Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia.


The overall effect of Operation Drive Out the Rubbish on the people’s lives has been calamitous. As many as a million people, in a population of 11.5 million, have been rendered homeless while human rights organisations estimate that about 300,000 children have dropped out of school as a result of the assaults on their homes.


Dzikamayi Chidyausiku is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.