Systematic Cleansing in Zimbabwe

It can't be called genocide, because it's not a systematic killing of a national or ethnic group. But Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe's destruction of hundreds of thousands of people's homes, market stalls, and now, subsistence gardens is systematic all right.

Put this in the context that it's winter in Zimbabwe, with bone-chilling nights. That the country is experiencing a food "emergency" (this according to the Famine Early Warning System Network). That Zimbabwe has an AIDS crisis, and its jobless rate stands at a whopping 80 percent.

Now think of what these conditions might mean for those suddenly made homeless by Mr. Mugabe's "Operation Murambatsvina," or "drive out trash."

This African ruler claims his program - going on for about a month now - is to clean up urban blight and put a stop to illegal businesses. His political opposition says it's intended to crush anti-Mugabe people, who have a strong presence in the cities, and to force them out to rural areas.

Indeed, the displacement brings to mind Cambodia's former dictator Pol Pot, who forced masses to the countryside to disperse his opponents.

The situation in Zimbabwe is alarming enough for the UN to announce this week that it's sending an envoy to investigate, and to prompt the US to condemn the operation as a "tragedy, crime, horror."

Zimbabwe is literally emptying out. Millions of people have fled the country, and AIDS claims 3,000 deaths a week. In 2002, the head of the secret police said the country would be better off with a far smaller population of "our own people" who support Mugabe's "liberation struggle."

Europe, the US, and the UN can condemn, but where's the new Africa, which pledges to tackle its problems itself? South Africa's influential leader Thabo Mbeki should be strongly urging Mugabe to change course.

"This is social cleansing to try to eradicate the opposition," says Trudy Stevenson, an opposition member of Zimbabwe's parliament. She's right.

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