By Matthew Burbidge
Johannesburg – On May 25 this year, Zimbabwe’s government began Operation Murambatsvina — a massiv
e campaign of forced evictions and demolitions. Six months later, says a damning Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released on Thursday, the government has made no arrangements to provide even temporary shelter to the internally displaced. Thousands of people are now living in the open.
“We have been out in the open since the end of May when our houses were demolished during Operation Murambatsvina. We are not getting any assistance from anyone. I have two children staying with me, but I sent the other two to the rural areas.
“My husband does not have a rural home and I don’t think he would appreciate it if we went to my rural home. I don’t have the money to send my children to school. The kids have colds because of staying outside and in the cold. I can’t afford medical assistance. Sometimes we sleep without eating a meal or anything. We don’t know what’s going to happen once the rains come,” a displaced mother of four, living by the edge of a forest in Victoria Falls, told a HRW researcher in September.
HRW is an international NGO, based in New York, that conducts advocacy and research on human rights issues.
On the front page of the report, entitled “Evicted and Forsaken: Internally Displaced Persons in the Aftermath of Operation Murambatsvina”, there is a Reuters photograph of an old man sitting among his possessions in front of his destroyed home in Norton, Zimbabwe. He sits close to a small fire; his toes protrude from his shoes. He clasps his hands; he does not look angry. There are cupboards, couches and clothes strewn nearby. Women and children mill about in the background of the photograph. Perhaps they are trying to reconstruct the rooms with the furniture, repositioning it inside a house that now has no walls.
In September and October, HRW sent a new research mission to the country to look into the plight of the internally displaced persons. The researchers carried out site visits to numerous locations in four of Zimbabwe’s provinces and conducted more than 50 interviews with displaced people, human rights activists, local authorities, church officials, United Nations staff in Zimbabwe and others.
“The political, economic, humanitarian and human rights conditions in Zimbabwe are all in precipitous decline. While drought and the devastating HIV/Aids pandemic have influenced these conditions to some extent, the actions of the Zimbabwe government and its indifference to the dignity and well-being of its citizens lie at the heart of Zimbabwe’s current crisis,” says the report.
“Ruling through intimidation and with respect for the rule of law or the rights of his citizens, President (Robert) Mugabe’s latest outrage — the forced eviction and displacement of hundreds and thousands of mostly poor people from the urban areas throughout Zimbabwe — has attracted international condemnation but been defended with characteristic bluster.”
The report says the displaced “have continued to suffer the cruel indifference of their government; no protection or assistance, no compensation, no accountability, restrictions on freedom of movement”.
The report says up to 223 000 children were directly affected by the operation.
An ActionAid report found that, overall, 22% of children who had been attending school dropped out because of the evictions. The displacement, says the HRW report, also hindered parents’ ability to pay for schooling, which meant that even more children dropped out of school.
The report says that with unemployment at about 80%, most adults in Zimbabwe try to make ends meet in the informal sector. Many lost their livelihoods when the government destroyed market stalls and other informal-sector businesses and homes.
Now the government has prevented them from making money by selling fruit, for example, says the report.
Chipo D, a Harare township resident, told HRW that although his stall was destroyed, he still tries to sell vegetables, “but the police arrest me and make me pay a fine”.
Another witness told HRW: “People whose market stalls were demolished have come back and are selling their vegetables in the open. Police come about five times a day and harass the vendors, and take their goods for free.
“One woman got tired of police harassment and threw stones at the policeman three weeks ago. She was arrested by the police, and I don’t know what happened to her.”
The report says the Zimbabwean government has persistently obstructed humanitarian operations. It says the UN staff interviewed by HRW in September and October cited the Zimbabwean government’s continuous obstruction of operations as the main reason for the international agencies’ inability to implement their programmes.
In its recommendations, among others, HRW calls on the Zimbabwe government to take urgent measures to provide protection and assistance to the displaced, including shelter, food, water and sanitation and medical services.
It also calls on the government to allow the special envoy of the African Union Commission, Tom Nyanduga, to return to Zimbabwe and fulfil his mandate and report to the AU on the status of internally displaced people.
It calls on the AU to adopt a resolution strongly condemning the mass evictions and demolitions as well as strongly condemning the obstruction of international humanitarian assistance.
The report says the plight of people displaced by the Zimbabwean government cannot be overlooked any further.
“It must generate a sense of outrage sufficient to trigger concerted action to protect and assist the displaced.” – Mail & Guardian Online