Zimbabwe Minister of Local Government Ignatius Chombo (Photo: Zimbabwe government)

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Thousands still homeless one year
after Zimbabwe’s forced evictions

Report by IRIN

10 May 2006: A year after Operation Murambatsvina (Drive Out Filth), the Zimbabwean government's sudden campaign to purge informal settlements, the lives of thousands of those affected have not changed. Uprooted last year from homes built illegally in the capital, Harare, families with five or more members have been squeezed into tiny living spaces authorised by the government on the outskirts of the city, with no source of employment and, in some cases, no access to medical facilities.

At night, families of six or seven often share the mud floor of a temporary shelter or one of the few new government-constructed brick houses - both about 12 square metres - smaller than an average garage. If the families have yet to be allocated a house, they are sometimes crammed into even smaller spaces. Those who failed to make it to the camps have chosen to either reconstruct their demolished dwellings or return to their rural homes.

According to the Zimbabwean government, the operation was aimed at clearing slums and flushing out criminals, but left more than 700,000 people homeless or without a livelihood in the winter of 2005. As yet another winter sets in, living conditions in the open fields serving as resettlement camps around Harare could not be harsher.

Residents struggle to protect themselves from the biting winds or a passing shower, using plastic sheets as the doors and windows of unfinished brick houses or self-erected wood and corrugated iron shacks.

Most do not have enough to feed their families. Ethel Goche, 60, used to sell vegetables and firewood in the streets of Harare to support her seven orphaned grandchildren; now she struggles to make even 50 US cents a day. Goche has set up shop in front of the permanent house allocated to her by the government in the resettlement camp in Hatfield, about 15km north of Harare. But there are few customers in the open field that surrounds her house.

"I grow vegetables, which helps feed the children, but I have no money for their [school] fees, which has gone up to Zim$2.5 million (about US$25) per term. I have not seen that kind of money, so there will be no school for them this time. I managed to sell a few things and raise enough money the last term," she added sadly.

With inflation at 913 per cent, schools have hiked their fees by more than 1,000 per cent for the term beginning this month. There has also been a 12-fold increase in the cost of essentials in the past two months.

According to the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe, a family of four now needs at least US$350 a month for essentials including non-food items, but average monthly incomes are less than $100. The residents in the resettlement count themselves lucky if they manage to earn one US dollar a day.

Local NGOs, like Christian Care, provide monthly rations of maizemeal, vegetable oil and pulses, made available by the UN's World Food Programme, to at least 3,000 households identified as vulnerable in the resettlement camps around Harare. The remaining majority have to find their own food, as the government does not allow general food distribution in the camps.

In the Hopley Farm resettlement site, about 10km south of the city, vulnerable families can find it much harder to access food aid. An omnipresent security apparatus runs the camp, estimated to house at least 2,000 families. "The security authorities, who guard the camp, decide who gets on the list of vulnerable families eligible for food or non-food aid. Each list is checked by the authority," claimed a resident.

"We cannot complain about anyone here, we don't know who might be a policeman or CIO [Central Intelligence Organisation] official," added another. Some people claimed that the security personnel had planted "spies" in the camp to counter any rebellion; others alleged that sexual favours were demanded in exchange for non-food items sent by humanitarian agencies.

The situation improved after some of the problems were highlighted in the media last year, one resident said. "Earlier, the relief workers used to leave the aid items with the security, now they distribute directly to the beneficiaries, but they [security] still decide who gets what," alleged another.

Last year the controversial camp made headlines when Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights claimed that the government was preventing aid from reaching displaced families. Some 2,260 people were removed from the Porta Farm settlement camp to Hopley Farm shortly after the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy on Human Settlements Issues, Anna Tibaijuka, visited Zimbabwe. The lawyers alleged that the residents had gone for a week or more without food, clean water, sanitary facilities and temporary shelter.

The Minister of Local Government, Public Works and Urban Development, Ignatius Chombo, defended the presence of security personnel in Hopley and said they were needed to protect the construction material lying in the area.

He also objected to the use of the term "resettlement camps". He clarified: "These areas [Hatfield, Hopley] have been earmarked for urban development after they was recovered under the land reform programme. The people have been allocated stands."

Chombo also justified the need to "vet" families eligible for food aid, as "we have a lot of outsiders, like Zambians and Mozambicans, making their way to these areas, so we have to verify and ensure that those who receive assistance are deserving Zimbabweans".

The government has started building and allocating permanent houses in Hopley under its urban renewal housing project. At least 50 tiny box-like houses have been constructed in Hopley, while another 100-odd permanent shelters have been built in the Hatfield resettlement camp. None of the hastily constructed houses have been completed and lack ablution facilities and access to services like water and electricity.

Under the urban renewal project, Chombo said, the government had already constructed 7,000 houses across the country and intended constructing another 15,000 by next year. Each house costs almost US$3,000, which the owner has to pay back over 25 years.

The affected residents argue that the government response is slow and inadequate.

The UN Children's Fund (Unicef) is providing potable water to Hatfield; Médecins Sans Frontières-Holland, a branch of the international medical relief agency, has installed taps in the camp with the help of the Harare Municipality; the Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has assisted 650 families with shelter through community initiatives in urban areas.

Addressing queries on the affected families' inability to earn a livelihood, Chombo maintained that informal traders affected by the operation, which had "helped to sanitise the streets of Harare", had the right to operate in designated areas of the city. "They [informal traders] know what they have to do [to apply for a licence]".

But dispossessed informal traders complained that they had to wait in queues for days at local authority offices, attempting to get a licence. "We have just given up, I am trying to see what else I can do," said one of them.

Chombo said the government was also involved in setting up 17 education institutes to provide skills to those who wanted to change professions. "They [affected residents] are aware of these programmes; they know what to do."

Residents maintained they had no other source of income. In areas like Epworth, one of Harare's poorest suburbs, people have chosen to resist Murambatsvina by reconstructing their demolished homes. "We cannot go anywhere else, this is our home," said Judith, who has to support four children.

Others have sought refuge in the unique rock formations outside Harare, away from the eyes of offialdom. "We feel safe here," said a resident, even though the authorities were aware of their presence.

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