For Zimbabwe's Displaced, Returning Home to Rubble

Tabengwa Shuzhu points to where his house stood in Porta Farm before it was destroyed by Zimbabwean authorities. Set up in 1991 as a temporary camp for people evicted near Harare, Porta Farm grew into a community of thousands.
Tabengwa Shuzhu points to where his house stood in Porta Farm before it was destroyed by Zimbabwean authorities. Set up in 1991 as a temporary camp for people evicted near Harare, Porta Farm grew into a community of thousands. (By Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 23, 2005

PORTA FARM, Zimbabwe -- The government called it Operation Murambatsvina -- literally, "Drive Out the Rubbish." But to hundreds of thousands of people like Gertrude Musaruro, the slum-clearance program has another name: the Tsunami.

For 14 years, Porta Farm was Musaruro's modest sanctuary in a cruel country. The community, about 20 miles west of Harare, the capital, had a school for her children and later her grandson. The nearby Manyame River yielded just enough fish each year to support a populace of more than 10,000.

But on June 28, she watched helplessly as a government bulldozer smashed through her three-room house and a wooden cabin that together sheltered her family of nine. Then, the police trucked her and most other residents to a bleak resettlement camp miles away. According to news reports, the assault with heavy equipment left four people dead.

"I am sitting like a butterfly or like a bird that stays in the tree. No house, no seat," said Musaruro, 45, who left the camp and took two long bus trips to return to her ruined home, preferring to sleep outside among the rubble.

President Robert Mugabe's aggressive campaign to "clean up" Zimbabwe's illegal dwellings and markets has left more than 700,000 people homeless during the coldest months of the year, according to the United Nations, and has created the most serious crisis for this southern African nation in five years of steep decline.

A sharply critical U.N. report issued Friday called on Mugabe to stop razing shantytowns. The controversial program has sent armed police into poor neighborhoods throughout the country, knocking down buildings and even forcing residents to tear their own homes apart.

On a recent day in Porta Farm, where several hundred families have returned on their own, children played among piles of shattered bricks, shards of asbestos siding and rusty barbed wire. Men sat on the cracked concrete remains of a bar, drinking high-test African beer called Scud, while women worked among the low shelters that many have cobbled together near their old residences.

As she talked about her ordeal, Musaruro occasionally laughed and shrugged. But when the subject turned to the government of Mugabe, who has ruled since independence in 1980, she balled her right hand into a fist and raised it as if ready to throw a punch.

Her anger was not new. In October 1991, police bulldozed her previous home, in one of several densely packed communities around Harare, just before a meeting of the British Commonwealth that was to feature a rare visit by Queen Elizabeth.

That day, Musaruro said, residents were assured that new, better homes were waiting for them, thanks to the government. But after a long ride on the back of a truck, they were dumped at Porta Farm, then little more than an empty meadow with a few trees scattered amid dry grass.

But there were lush hills to the south and a man-made lake beyond. A short walk west lay the Manyame River, where fishermen could hook fierce but tasty tiger fish from the swift, murky waters. At 10 pounds or more, a big tiger fish could feed a family for several days or fetch good money at markets in Harare.

Although Porta Farm was supposed to be a temporary resettlement camp, it gradually grew into something more -- a community with a school, a church, a mosque and thousands of homes made of brick, thatch and asbestos. Dozens of small shops operated out of homes, offering bread, soft drinks and other basics.


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