Zimbabwe Police Raze Poor Towns In Rampage
Government Says Homes Being Destroyed Are Illegal

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 5, 2005

HARARE, Zimbabwe, June 4 -- Six days after teams of police officers ordered the residents of Hatcliffe Extension, a squatter village, to tear down their homes, the destruction still looks startlingly fresh, the former tenants dazed and weary.

Where houses once stood are piles of plastic sheeting and splinters of lumber. Shops built of concrete have been reduced to rubble. A Catholic day-care center for AIDS orphans has been destroyed. And the residents, worn out after days of living among the ruins and nights spent outside in the cold, sit mournfully among the shattered remnants of their lives.

"I have no options. I have nowhere to go," said Catherine Tangara, 58, a round-faced widow who cares for her four grandchildren because both of her daughters have died.

The story is the same in urban areas throughout Zimbabwe, an economically and politically troubled southern African country of 12 million. Thousands of police officers have spent the past two weeks on a rampage of destruction that officials call a campaign to clean up illegal housing and markets.

At least 22,000 street traders have been arrested, police said in government-owned newspapers, and tens of thousands of people have been left homeless. Though the full extent of the operation remains unknown, opposition leaders say as many as 1.5 million people in Harare alone may have lost their homes.

President Robert Mugabe has dubbed the campaign "Operation Murambatsvina," which the state-owned press translates as "Operation Restore Order" and portrays as a necessary effort to curb crime, garbage and the other excesses of rapid urbanization over the past several years. But in Shona, the dominant language in Zimbabwe, it has a more sinister translation, given that most of those targeted are poor: "Operation Drive Out the Rubbish."

In Hatfield Extension, more than 6,000 people lost their homes on police order last Sunday. No houses or shops remain standing, and a community mosque was destroyed.

"They said, 'If you refuse, we will whip you,' " said a 38-year-old widow who cares for her two children and her elderly mother on a modest income earned from sewing dresses and bedspreads. "Now everything is destroyed."

In neighborhood after neighborhood, truckloads of police officers have arrived in riot helmets and demanded that residents tear down their own homes, typically wood shacks or one-room concrete houses that shelter Zimbabwe's urban poor. Most people have complied with the police, attacking their homes with their bare hands or with picks and hammers that made the job quicker, if no less terrible.

Traders, meanwhile, have turned their own wooden stalls into kindling. In targeted areas across Harare, people can be seen sitting on piles of rubble, staring into space.

Many of the victims have already moved away from the urban areas, jamming their families and remaining possessions onto buses and returning to the rural areas where they grew up. Others have tried to make do where they are. Tangara, for instance, spent Sunday breaking her wood-and-cardboard home into pieces. Then she built a thigh-high shelter that is open on one side so that she and the children can crawl inside among some dirty pillows and worn blankets.

"It's so painful," Tangara said as one of the children stood wide-eyed beside her, "and so chilly."

Several miles away, in the southern Harare community of Mbare, a 48-year-old carpenter, who like many interviewed for this story declined to reveal his full name because of fears of retribution, said a police officer swung a sledgehammer into his work shed, then barked out orders that the 12 concrete rental units on his property be demolished as well.

In the same community, a 22-year-old trader said he tore down his wooden stall on Sunday only to be forced to demolish his modest home two days later. He said he planned to move to a family home in a rural area nearly 200 miles away.

"We're just starving," he said. "We've got nothing to do."

Opposition leaders have argued that Mugabe's motivation is political and point out that resistance to the government runs strongest in cities. Some also suggest that the campaign is a preemptive action against unrest.

"It's to stop people in the urban areas from organizing themselves for a revolution," said Trudy Stevenson, an opposition lawmaker whose district includes Hatcliffe Extension.

Since the March 31 parliamentary elections, in which Mugabe won a landslide victory in voting that many Western governments denounced as rigged, the currency has plunged and basic commodities such as sugar, flour and cornmeal have disappeared from store shelves. Gas shortages are so severe that motorists line up for blocks simply on rumors of deliveries at filling stations.

But Mugabe's party traditionally has found support in Hatcliffe Extension and some of the other areas razed in the past two weeks, a fact that some people say is an indication that the government campaign is less about punishing opponents than reversing years of urbanization.

Zimbabweans in recent years have increasingly abandoned farming in rural areas to work as street traders in cities and live in shantytowns and other informal settlements.

A farmer outside of Harare, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he saw a chilling logic in the crackdown.

Since 2000, when Mugabe began a campaign of often-violent seizures of commercial farmland, Zimbabwe has experienced recurrent shortages of food and foreign currency.

The farmer's land was among the properties invaded. Squatters built about 2,000 homes on the land, but several days ago, the government bulldozed most of them. The farmer said he was appalled by the tactics, which left many families with small children homeless, but was glad to get his land back. He intends to begin planting in the cleared area in October.

"I think somebody realized you need order," the farmer said. "We're going back actually to big-time farming."

Whatever Mugabe's motives, the cost has been high for William Mutyasira, his wife and their four children. Police struck their community of Mbare on Tuesday. Mutyasira arrived home from his job at a local shop to find his home demolished.

All their possessions -- chairs, a battered radio, a small kitchen table -- are now piled in a yard cluttered with concrete rubble.

"This is now our kitchen unit," Mutyasira joked grimly as he pointed to a bucket containing cooking oil, instant coffee and a dried corncob.

Soon, he said, he will take his family and their possessions back to their traditional, rural community. But eventually, Mutyasira said he planned to return to Harare and start over.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company