Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Zimbabwe 'cleanup' taxes churches

An estimated 300,000 people are homeless after the government razed houses and shops.

By Ryan TruscottContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 22, 2005


In a dark and dusty churchyard, scores of Zimbabwean families are quietly trying to come to terms with losing their homes.

Skip to next paragraph

Small groups huddle around fires. Their possessions are piled high around them - the sofas and bedsteads, dressers and wardrobes that they managed to save when police destroyed their homes as part of a controversial city "cleanup" campaign.

The township of Tafara, which means "we are happy" in the local Shona language, is now a place of devastation.

Zimbabwean police launched "Operation Murambatsvina," or "drive out trash," more than a month ago. It started with the destruction of flea- market stalls, moved to squatter camps, and then swept through poor suburbs of Zimbabwe's towns and cities. Tuesday the government extended the demolitions to urban gardens that many residents relied on for food.

Zimbabwean authorities say the operation is meant to restore the glow to urban areas, long-blighted by unplanned developments such as sprawling shanties and informal markets the size of football fields. But critics, including the US, say the crackdown is politically motivated, designed to strengthen even further Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's already iron grip on the country.

"When you see one [resident] with a little beautiful house, here today and gone tomorrow, it breaks the heart," says the Rev. Raymond Mupandasekwa, a Roman Catholic priest.

At least 300,000 people have been made homeless across the troubled Southern African country, according to the Combined Harare Ratepayers' Association. With foreign aid organizations relegated to the sidelines due to recent government threats, the humanitarian crisis is stretching churches like Mr. Mupandasekwa's to the limit. They are providing shelter, clothing, and transport to the homeless.

Bumping over Tafara's potholed roads in his church bus, Mupandasekwa points to the piles of rubble that lie heaped outside front gates. Plastic sheeting covers open porches where people now sleep, despite the near-freezing temperatures.

Mr. Mugabe told senior ruling party officials last month that the operation would create "a whole new and salubrious urban environment." But the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) says the motives are much more sinister. The party says the government is punishing urban supporters for voting against it in parliamentary elections in March.

Mugabe's party, the Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front, won the election, taking 78 seats to just 41 for the MDC. But the ruling party failed to win back parliamentary seats in cities and towns, which have been in the hands of the MDC since 2000.

Says Timothy Mubawu, the MDC member of parliament for Tafara: "You clean out a house that has pests in it. That's how the government views MDC supporters in urban areas." Mr. Mubawu says 20,000 people have been displaced in his constituency alone.