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.
In a country where the unemployment rate is estimated at 70 percent or above, most of Porta Farm's men were able to work at fishing, and most of its women sold goods, either here or in Harare.
Musaruro's family grew as well. Along with her four children, there were soon three grandchildren, making their little brick house even more cramped. When a Christian aid group offered to build them a cabin a few feet away, Musaruro was grateful.
To cover the bills, she bought fish from local men and resold them in Harare for a small profit. With the salary from her husband's job as a security guard, they made about $75 a month, she said.
Porta Farm was often called a slum, and it lacked the proper building plans and permits required to secure legal existence. But in the minds of the residents, it was home.
"I was happy," said Musaruro, "because I started to build a new life."
Operation Murambatsvina began May 19, seven weeks after Mugabe's party won a landslide in parliamentary elections that many Western nations and human rights groups said was rigged. Defending the destruction of markets and homes, Mugabe denounced the uncontrolled growth of densely packed urban areas in an economy that had contracted by a third since 2000.
"Our cities and towns had deteriorated to levels that were a real cause for concern," Mugabe was quoted as saying in a government-run newspaper the next week. "Our cities and towns . . . had become havens for illicit and criminal practices and activities that just could not be allowed to go on."
After demolishing tens of thousands of supposedly illegal structures in and around Harare, police moved outward to the suburbs and even some rural areas. Last week the government, facing harsh international criticism, announced a temporary halt to the campaign, though opposition leaders contended that it would resume once world attention eased.
But enormous damage has already been done. The families of Porta Farm are split among the remains of the community, the government resettlement camp and ancestral homes in far-flung rural areas.
Musaruro's children and grandchildren are still at the resettlement camp, where she said her 15-year-old grandson, Rangarirai, has missed three weeks of classes and developed a worrisome cough. Meanwhile, she and her husband pooled their money to take a bus back to Porta Farm, joining a chaotic influx of returnees that has now swelled into the thousands.
At first, they all slept outside amid the rubble, trying to ward off the frigid nights with small fires. Then drenching rains began. After one night that left her soaked and shivering, Musaruro built herself a small shelter from leftover bricks. She laid a piece of corrugated tin on top. Then she crawled inside and lay down on the dirt floor with her husband.
Over the next several days, structures of every conceivable design began emerging. Old pieces of thatch roof and rusty scraps of sheet metal were fashioned into tiny houses. One 15-year-old girl sewed plastic lime bags into a tent that fit over a frame of branches.
By the third week, few people were still sleeping in the cold, but Operation Murambatsvina had succeeded into turning a solid community into a hazardous hodgepodge. Residents said they dared not erect new, full-size homes for fear the police would return.
Still, Musaruro is already dreaming how to make her life whole again. If other residents start to build, she said, she will follow. Her husband is unable to lift heavy things because of an old shoulder injury, but she said she would happily do the brickwork.
"Me, I do it," she said. "I build myself."
What she wants most, however, is to see her family reunited. Her plan is to buy a single tiger fish, take a bus into Harare, sell it for two or three dollars, then use the profits to take a bus to the resettlement camp and bring back at least one child or grandchild. She said she would do the same thing every day until everyone is back at Porta Farm.
But first, she said, she is waiting to make sure the Tsunami will stay away.
"Maybe it will come again. Maybe it will not come again," she said. "I don't know."