In 2002, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe seized 5,000 white-owned farms, which led to the collapse of the country's agriculture-based economy, and forced residents to depend on relief aid. Then Mugabe brought the country's economy into further turmoil and beginning May 19, the government has been demolishing urban shantytowns and businesses in a program he calls Operation Murambatsvina, or Operation Drive Out the Trash. (Not coincidentally, those areas happen to be in areas where opposition to Mugabe is strongest.)
According to a just-released U.N. report, 700,000 people are now without homes or jobs in the country.
Yesterday, after churches gave shelter to many of the homeless, the Mugabe government's "armed riot police and ruling Zanu-PF youth militia rounded up hundreds of homeless peopleincluding infants sheltering in churches in [Zimbabwe's second-largest city,] Bulawayo," according to South African news sources.
"Police raided church halls rounding up people who had been sheltering there since their homes were destroyed in a so-called urban renewal drive, a human-rights lawyer said on Thursday," writes The Mail and Guardian.
Mugabe's Operation Murambatsvina (which some have translated "Operation Restore Order") is seen as a move to break up support for the opposition group and force reliance on Mugabe's food aid, which he is now receiving from South Africa.
"They stormed the church buildings like soldiers raiding an enemy camp," victim Standford Zulu said. "They threw out our few belongings and told us to go away."
An Anglican priest told the Johannesburg paper Business Day, "The memory of a naked 5-year-old child crying in the cold after being rudely awaken from her sleep by the riot police as they forced internally displaced people out of Agape Church in Nketa will always come back to haunt me. I watched the riot police frog-march her family into an open truck. Her mother struggled to load their wardrobe, probably one of the few valuable assets that survived the burning down of her shack in Killarney. Now the same people came back to force them out of the church to the transit camp."
Other witnesses told the U.K.-based Telegraph that the victims would be dumped in rural areas where they would have no access to food aid. The churches were sheltering at least 500 people, according to the London Times.
Church leaders were also arrested. "Four clergymen were arrested and held for questioning on Wednesday night when they went to investigate reports that police were forcibly evicting people from churches where they had sought temporary sanctuary," reports The Zimbabwe Independent.
A regional church group, the Solidarity Peace Trust, said, "This action against church leaders is taking place at a time when church leaders from South Africa have been calling for closer collaboration between churches in Zimbabwe and South Africa to respond to the enormous humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in Zimbabwe. As such, it points towards a deliberate retribution campaign on the part of the ruling party against church and civil society leaders for offering support and refuge to those displaced by the violent destruction of their property, and for allegedly giving negative reports to the United Nations and the South African Council of Churches."
The United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-HABITAT) just released its report on Operation Murambatsvina. According to the AP, the report said, "While purporting to target illegal dwellings and structures and to clamp down on alleged illicit activities, (the operation) was carried out in an indiscriminate and unjustified manner, with indifference to human suffering."
"The report, using unusually harsh language for the United Nations, said the operation clearly violated international law, and it demanded that the government immediately stop the destruction," says the Associated Press. "In response, Zimbabwe officials said the international community should provide funds for cheap housing and lift economic sanctions." (Foreign Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi today called the report "definitely false.")
"African nations on the 15-member Security Council have so far kept the crisis in Zimbabwe off the council's agenda," says the AP. "But several U.N. diplomats said they are hoping to get [UN-HABITAT executive director Anna] Tibaijuka to brief members on the report next week."
Maybe the United Nations will be able to act quickly once the urban poor have had their homes demolished, their jobs destroyed, their food taken, relief efforts raided, and the sick and elderly left without shelter in the winter. Oh wait, that's already happened. Well, they did write up a harshly worded report. Which is more than African leaders, who can't even bring themselves to criticize Mugabe, have done. They're too busy sending him money and food.
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