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

Operation Murambatsvina One Year On

Hundreds of thousands who lost their homes in the operation are still waiting for government to fulfil rehousing pledge.
By Dzikamai Chidyausiku
Mavis Mavhunga, a 40-year-old widow with three children, has been living in a battered shack since her three-roomed house was destroyed last year in President Robert Mugabe's Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Drive Out the Filth).

Murambatsvina, conducted by soldiers, police and militias with bulldozers, sledgehammers and ignited petrol, and accompanied by extreme violence, was presented by Mugabe's ZANU PF government as a renewal scheme to "clean up" urban areas. But virtually nothing has been done to provide accommodation for the estimated 700,000 to a million people who watched their homes being destroyed when Murambatsvina was launched a year ago on May 18.

Most who lost their homes were opposition supporters. Critics believe Murambatsvina had little to do with regeneration, but was a giant despotic social engineering project designed to force potentially troublesome urban communities back into the countryside, where Mugabe's party controls nearly all the levers of power, and to deter a popular uprising against the government.

The mass destruction of homes impelled United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to send a special envoy to Zimbabwe. The envoy,

Anna Tibaijuka, a senior Tanzanian UN official, lambasted the mass demolitions as inhuman, adding that they had created a humanitarian crisis in breach of national and international human rights laws. She said Mugabe had shown "indifference to human suffering" while her boss, Annan, described the situation as "profoundly distressing". In all, said Tibaijuka, some 2.4 million of the country's 12 million people were directly or indirectly affected by Murambatsvina.

Hardly anything has improved since the Murambatsvina storm, and now the short but sharply cold Zimbabwe winter looms.

“The [summer] rainy season is almost over and we have been waiting in vain for the promised houses,” said Mavhunga in her flimsy cardboard and plastic shack at Whitecliff, a working class suburb about 11 miles west of the capital, Harare, which was one of the areas hardest hit in Operation Murambatsvina. Countless thousands of other families like the Mavhungas are also waiting for President Mugabe to fulfil his promise of a million new houses.

There are no toilets or clean-piped water near Mavhunga's home. Wells that she and others tried to dig have collapsed.

Her two children, Tendai and Michael, have dropped out of school and she is uncertain when they will return. ”I can't afford to feed them properly, so what sense does it make sending them to school?” she said to IWPR while gesticulating with her calloused hands.

Mavhunga built her shack on the patch of land where the state's bulldozers razed her house. Debris from the operation lies in a heap and she has used some of the bricks to construct a makeshift kitchen.

The pain and misery caused by Murambatsvina is still evident

in her words as she tells how she watched helplessly as her house was toppled and how she feels totally betrayed by the ruling politicians. “I will never forget that day. The police came in the morning, told us to throw out our things and destroyed my house with their bulldozers,” she said as she pointed to where her home once stood.

Her vegetable vending stall in town, her family’s livelihood since the late 1990s, was also destroyed in Murambatsvina along with the open air stalls of thousands of other shoe repairers, watch menders, carpenters, tailors, seamstresses and other small-scale informal traders.

Mugabe's demolition squads even made people destroy their own homes. Remia Sangano recalled how police ordered her grandson to demolish their three-bedroom brick home at Porta Farm, 20 miles west of Harare, in a general assault on that community which cost four lives. Sangano, who lives under plastic with four grandchildren, and whose parents died from AIDS, said she looked on in horror as the police supervised her grandson as he knocked down the modest family house brick-by-brick with a pick axe.

Wrecking squads first marked houses chosen for destruction with special paint marks. Then, after destroying dwellings that made hundreds of thousands of people homeless, the government announced Operation Garikai (Operation Live Well), a home-building programme that has turned out to be an unaffordable political gimmick. Only a handful of so-called Garikai houses, some 7000, have been built, and those few have been allocated overwhelmingly to people with links to the corridors of power and to the ruling party, such as minister's personal friends and relatives, soldiers, policemen, councillors and government civil servants.

"Even the few houses that the government has constructed are all going into the hands of the kith and kin of those who are in the top echelons of power," said Itali Zimunya of Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, which brings together human rights groups, churches, labour movements and student organisations.

The hundreds of thousands made homeless by Murambatsvina remain homeless.

“They promised us houses but now they are sharing them amongst themselves,” said Sipiwe Mhere whose Whitecliff house was also destroyed last June. She now shelters in a shack made of plastic sheeting with her three year-old son and husband. Her husband’s bicycle-wheeled pushcart, with which he transported produce to earn a meagre living for his family, was recently confiscated by police as an "unlicensed vehicle".

In Epworth, another of Harare's poor suburbs, people have chosen to defy Murambatsvina and Mugabe by constructing temporary homes on the rubble of their smashed houses. Others have sought refugee among rock formations outside Harare, away from the eyes of police and other officials. "We have left our fates to God," said one resident of the caves. "Otherwise, I don't know what will become of my family and my life in the next few months."

While the physical impact of the operation remains clear, in the shape of piles of rubble that were once houses, the traumatic consequences are immediately less obvious. Doctors, however, say the victims could take years to recover from the distress of having seen their life work and savings destroyed in just minutes by the sledgehammers, bulldozers and petrol flames.

A recently published report compiled by an international aid agency and two civil society groups said hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans remain traumatised by Murambatsvina and subsequent events. Most need skilled counselling, said the report, titled "An In-Depth Study on the Impact of Operation Murambatsvina/Restore Order in Zimbabwe".

Compiled by ActionAid International in collaboration with the Combined Harare Residents’ Association, CHRA, and Zimbabwe Peace Project, ZPP, it compared the psychological effects of the assault to those in countries in civil wars and low intensity conflict. "The actions [by the authorities in Murambatsvina] resembled a war situation," said the report.

It said the operation had interfered with the livelihoods of some seventy per cent of those whose homes were destroyed, while some 20,000 former small informal traders alleged that they had been arrested during the exercise. One in four of those detained said they had been assaulted in police custody.

More than one in five children had dropped out of school following Murambatsvina. Families had disintegrated and lost their livelihoods.

The report, which the government has dismissed as propaganda, said Murambatsvina had a serious impact on those living with HIV and AIDS in a country with one of the highest HIV/AIDS incidences in the world. It said the majority of sufferers in the areas targeted by the operation were removed from their medication and care, with "severe" consequences for their longevity and the spread of the virus.

The 57-page report, based on interviews with more than 23,000 people made homeless, valued the total loss of property and earning at about 35 million pounds sterling. Other experts believe the financial consequences are much higher.

The international aid organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres said that, with winter setting in, communicable diseases, especially tuberculosis and cholera, are wreaking havoc among the homeless who have little or no access to clean water and toilets.

The Mugabe government has refused to set up a commission of

inquiry into Murambatsvina, as recommended in the report to Kofi Annan by his special envoy. Anna Tibaijuka also proposed the establishment of a commission to prosecute those responsible for the operation, which was labelled "Zimbabwe's Tsunami" to convey its speed and ferocity.

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

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