Remember the Victims of Murambatsvina

When the Murambatsvina operation was mounted by the government of Zimbabwe in 2005 it was directed at those who occupied illegal dwellings in urban areas and who operated informal businesses to support themselves and their families. According to the United Nations subsequent report on this operation 700 000 people were rendered homeless and some 2,4 million were affected in some way by the exercise over a period of three months.

In Bulawayo, one of the target areas was the squatter camp at Killarney just to the south of the City near the Old Nick Mine. This area was home to some 2000 people who had built small mud and grass homes and drew water from nearby urban settlements. The area was adjacent to low-density housing and many found work there or traveled into town to work in the informal sector.

Whitestone Church together with other local Churches adopted this settlement and operated a small Church there for the people. The Church supplied periodic humanitarian aid of different kinds (blankets, food and clothes) to the community. A pastor was employed to care for their needs together with other informal settlements around the City.

When the army and police moved in to destroy these homes, the Churches rallied their members and a modern form of the Dunkirk evacuations took place with people arriving in horse boxes, cars and trailers as well as small trucks and even a 7 tonne truck to move the assets of the people to three church halls in the City until such time as something could be done for them. In the end 217 families were moved, others choosing to stay with relatives elsewhere, and this constituted about 1500 men, women and children.

They were accommodated at three Churches - the Methodist and Anglican Churches in Hillside and the Presbyterian Church in the City centre. Conditions were crowded but adequate and the Churches helped with blankets and food. The children were introduced to a short-term programme of activity and education.

After three days, in the early hours of the morning, military trucks arrived at all the Churches accompanied by armed soldiers and police. The people were loaded onto the trucks and taken out into the rural areas. No attempt was made to try and find out where they would like to go, they were simply dumped in the rural areas - in many cases up to 200 kilometers from Killarney. They were simply left on the side of the road to try and find their way into the local community for help.

The church responded by trying to locate all the people involved and to continue assistance as best they could. The Pastors eventually found the majority and resumed care and supplies of essential needs. This continues through to today although at a much lower level. The principal player in this operation was Pastor Albert Chitindo and he has maintained a record of this operation from its inception.

According to Albert, the Pastors involved have conducted burials at the rate of 2 to 3 a week amongst this displaced community since their eviction from their homes. Many returned to Killarney to try and rebuild their lives but have been displaced and their homes destroyed for a second time. In other urban centers this process continues - last week 28 homes were burnt and their contents destroyed by Police in the Kwe Kwe area for instance.

By our rough count half the community displaced from Killarney has died since 2005. The main reasons have been malnutrition, starvation, exposure (the 2005 and 2006 winters were especially cold) and diseases. The main casualties have been the children and men. The latter succumbing to hopelessness and despair when they were unable in any way to either protect or provide for their families.

The actual numbers of people displaced by Murambatsvina may in fact have been significantly higher than the UN estimated. Those estimates were based on official figures given to the UN team by the State. In one small centre - Beitbridge the total numbers of displaced were estimated at 22 000 out of an official numbers in the town of 50 000 - over 40 per cent. However the housing situation in Beitbridge was particularly poor and informal settlements extensive. 70 per cent of the displaced population remains homeless in Beitbridge.

In Harare the numbers affected by the operation were very substantial as the destruction of informal and even some formal housing was widespread and involved hundreds of thousands of homes in areas such as Mbare township - the most densely populated urban settlement in the country.

Despite promises, the provision of housing for these displaced people has stopped completely. A major housing scheme at Cowdrey Park outside Bulawayo has several hundred half finished dwellings - many of which are occupied illegally by squatters and many are only partially complete. There are no services to these 'Garikai' homes. The same situation applies to all other urban centers including the major Cities.

The objective of the Murambatsvina exercise was not to control illegal settlement but in fact to reduce the urban population. The regime in Harare had discovered in the 2005 elections that the urban areas now held a majority of the people in the country for the first time and were concerned that these populations could not be controlled for political reasons in the same way as in the rural areas. In particular they were concerned about the informal sector businesspersons who are the basic strength of the MDC.

Through this exercise the regime sought to drive out of the urban areas as many as a million people. They did not care where they went to or what happened to them so long as they left the urban areas. If they died or fled to South Africa or remained in the rural areas under the jurisdiction of the traditional leaders, they would be neutralized politically. That was the real aim.

How many have died as a direct result? Hundreds of thousands! My own heart goes out to all those Dads and even Grand dads who have died of a broken heart and despair let alone all those little brown children who died of exposure and hunger. For me, this is another form of genocide, especially as it was totally unnecessary.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 17th October 2007