Zimbabwe 'cleanup' taxes churches

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

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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.

"Operation Murambatsvina" has been condemned by Britain, the US, and the European Union. So concerned is UN Secretary General Kofi Annan that he has appointed an envoy to travel to Zimbabwe soon to measure the "humanitarian impact" of the evictions, a spokesperson announced on Monday.

Inside the brightly lit church hall in Tafara, women and children chat in low voices among the wicker baskets and shabby mattresses. Music from a radio blares out. There's no fury here, just a palpable sense of resignation.

Chipo, a 32-year-old woman dressed in a thin grey pullover, has been sleeping at the church.

"This country is horrid. What does he [Mugabe] want us to do?" she asks with a nervous giggle.

Like most people here, Chipo is looking for a lift to the "rural areas." She wants to get to Karoi, a small town 125 miles northwest of the capital, Harare. She plans to leave her two daughters there with relatives and come back alone in the hope of finding work.

But not everyone has family to turn to, says Mupandasekwa. Many Tafara residents are of Malawian or Zambian origin and have nowhere else to go in Zimbabwe. "The only place they've known as home is here," he says. "They don't know the rural areas. This is their only treasure."

The government has set up a temporary "holding camp" at a farm on the outskirts of Harare where around 2,000 displaced families are sleeping in tents. According to local press reports, conditions there are harsh, and fears of disease are running high. State radio announced Tuesday that a few local aid organizations have been allowed to distribute blankets and other provisions to people in the camp.

The government says it is committed to the development of small businesses, but wants them to operate in an "orderly fashion," as Mugabe said recently on state radio. But with 80 percent unemployment and an economy that has been foundering since 2000 when the government took land from white farmers, residents here rely heavily on "informal" businesses and urban gardens to sustain them. Once the breadbasket of Southern Africa, Zimbabwe announced earlier this year that it needs to import as much as 1.2 million metric tons of food to feed the country's 12 million people.

Although many city residents are bitter about "Operation Murambatsvina," it appears unlikely to loosen Mugabe's 25-year old hold on power. His party swept to victory in a by-election held in a rural stronghold this past weekend.

"[The police operation] has hurt him tremendously, except it's in areas that he doesn't value in terms of his tenure in office," says John Makumbe, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe.

But Mr. Makumbe says there was evidence that Mugabe, the 81-year-old former guerrilla leader, had lost some support among veterans of the country's 1970s war against white minority rule. Some of the ex-fighters, traditionally strong supporters of the president, were horrified to see their homes destroyed.

"We've even had some of them saying, 'Down with Mugabe,' something we couldn't imagine war veterans saying six weeks ago," Makumbe adds.

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