All but a few of the Bushmen living in Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve have been forcibly removed from their homes in recent days in what spokesmen for the affected communities said is a final push by the government to end human habitation there after tens of thousands of years.
The First People of the Kalahari, an activist group in Botswana, said that Bushmen villages had been cut off from their main sources of food and water and that outsiders had been prohibited from entering to provide relief for the past six weeks.
The group said a heavy contingent of police, military and park rangers trucked out about 40 people -- most of the remaining residents -- at gunpoint on Friday and Saturday. The stragglers face constant harassment, it said.
Botswana officials gave a strikingly different account, saying the police activity was prompted by a quarantine because of a disease affecting the goats many Bushmen keep. The officials also said that all those who had left had done so voluntarily.
But Jumanda Gakeredone of the First People of the Kalahari said that such basic activities as hunting game and gathering water-filled roots had been prohibited and that officials had seized goats, sheep and other livestock the Bushmen use for food.
"The situation is really, really bad," he said from Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. "Every day, they are there with guns."
Officials acknowledged that one of the game reserve's two main villages, Malapo, had been deserted since 25 residents were trucked out Friday. The other substantial settlement, Metsiamanong, lost nearly half its remaining residents when 14 left on government trucks Saturday.
They are not permitted to return as long as the quarantine remains in force, the government said. No date has been set for the end of the quarantine, and activists said it was just a pretext for removing the Bushmen while their right to stay is being argued in a major court battle.
Government officials have long sought to drive the Bushmen from the game reserve, saying their increasingly sedentary lifestyle -- which includes keeping domestic animals and using motorized vehicles -- makes them incompatible with a park for wild animals. The Kalahari reserve is a major tourist attraction for the southern African nation of 1.6 million.
The total number of Bushmen remaining in the reserve, which is larger than Switzerland, is now 27 people in three villages, said Ruth Maphorisa, the top government official for the district, speaking from Gaborone.
"There was no harassment whatsoever," Maphorisa said. "We didn't force anybody to leave." She added that a government videotape of the removals shows the villagers leaving freely. She said police and military troops were there only to help load household belongings onto waiting trucks.
Told of her comments, Gakeredone responded angrily. "It's a lie. No one has left Malapo by choice," he said. "Every day, the police are there and threatening with guns."
He also said he could not verify the number of Bushmen left inside the reserve because he and other activists had been barred during the quarantine. His account of incidents there, he said, was based on conversations with those who had been removed.
Bushmen once roamed most of southern Africa, before the encroachment of white settlers moving north from Cape Town and African Bantu farmers migrating south squeezed them nearly out of existence.
Among the final places where Bushmen have maintained traditional ways is the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. But the government has gradually cut off water deliveries and medical services, while forcing children to study outside the reserve in classrooms dominated by speakers of Setswana, the national language.
An estimated 2,000 Bushmen lived in the reserve before the government undertook forced removal campaigns in 1997 and 2002. Most were relocated to New Xade, a settlement outside the reserve. Some Bushmen said they grew despondent in New Xade, separated from their homes and the graves of their ancestors.
Last month, the First People of the Kalahari loaded five trucks full of cornmeal, water and tobacco and attempted to defy the quarantine. There was a confrontation, which grew violent, and police fired rubber bullets to disperse the crowd, injuring one, the government has said. Twenty-one people were arrested.