Six months after the government tore down her house, Sifelani Lunga lies sweating in a dirt-floor shack on the same desolate stretch of mud. Just coming back has made her a fugitive.
Like thousands of people dumped in rural areas after the government razed squatter shacks and street stalls, she crept back to the remains of this settlement outside Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, Bulawayo, because she could not survive in the countryside.
As the Zimbabwe government and United Nations argue about providing shelter for the people who have been thrown out of their homes, thousands like Lunga have no secure refuge and live in fear of police raids.
The U.N.'s top humanitarian affairs official, Jan Egeland, tried to persuade President Robert Mugabe this month to accept tents for those left homeless after the government implemented “Operation Murambatsvina,” a Shona phrase meaning “clean out the filth.” The demolitions, which began in May, destroyed the homes of 700,000 people and affected a total of 2.4 million, according to a highly critical U.N. report.
“The humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe is extremely serious, and it is deteriorating,” Egeland told journalists after his visit this month, describing the evictions as “one of the worst things at the worst possible moment in Zimbabwe.”
But Mugabe told Egeland, “We are not a tents people.... We believe in houses,” said presidential spokesman George Charamba, who was quoted in the state-owned Herald newspaper.
The government has agreed, however, to accept U.N. food aid for 3 million hungry people, about a quarter of the country’s population.
Zimbabwe announced a massive housing construction plan in the aftermath of Operation Murambatsvina, but by December only a few hundred houses had been built and the program had come to a halt. Human Rights Watch said the program was unaffordable to the vast majority of displaced people because it required proof of regular salary and payment of a deposit.
After riot police and bulldozers destroyed houses in Killarney, thousands of displaced people found shelter in the city’s churches until police evicted them again. They were sent to the countryside in what critics call a campaign to dismantle the opposition’s urban support.
When Lunga, a 43-year-old widow with HIV, arrived in the village where she’d been exiled, she found no food and no clinic. She struggled back to the ruins of Killarney, along with hundreds of others, but she has no money for transport to Bulawayo clinics or churches where food is handed out, and is too ill to make the walk of nearly two hours.
She lay curled on a ragged blanket on the dank ground in a smoky, leaking hut. She had a fever and had been vomiting for three days.
Albert Chatindo, pastor of the Christian Faith Fellowship Church, is coordinating efforts to trace those evicted and to feed the hungry, but he said the churches did not have enough food or vehicles to feed everyone sent into the countryside.
“I see the government has no love for the people. Since they moved them and dumped them, they never followed up,” he said. Chatindo said the demolitions dismantled delicate social networks of support: Most people had no family or friends in the rural areas where they were sent. Some were rejected by local chiefs.
“People are not accepting them. They are accused of being the opposition Movement for Democratic Change,” he said, referring to the only significant opposition party, now bitterly split. “People say to us, ‘Why are you giving food and shelter to these people? They are not your children.’ ”
In Bulawayo, churches are not allowed distribute food to the returning squatters.
“We can’t take the food out there because if we do, we’re confronting the government structures. They must come and collect it,” Chatindo said. “But we have defied the rules. I often take porridge or [corn] meal to the sick people. You have to save lives.”
Chatindo has adopted four teenage girls he found wandering in the street during the demolition operation. Last month, he buried a 6-month-old baby, Flora Mkandla, who was born at the time of the evictions. Her family is squatting in an abandoned, half-built house with no roof on Bulawayo’s outskirts.
Flora’s death certificate was marked “malnutrition.” She died five days after her mother, Mavis Mkandla, who was HIV-positive and unable to get treatment.
“Mavis used to tell us she wouldn’t live,” said Mkandla’s sister-in-law, Silanesiwe Kiwani, 39. “She said, ‘Take this baby of mine. What is going to happen after I die is that this baby will also die.’ I accepted with a willing heart, but it is not an easy thing.”
There is a cautious, fearful atmosphere hanging over the scattered makeshift huts that several hundred people have hastily put up in Killarney and at the Ingozi mine outside Bulawayo.
“When the police come, they’ll definitely destroy these shacks,” said one returnee, Jutias Muleya, 37. “We are not really safe here.”
Chatindo said the number of those returning grows daily: “People are flocking back here. They could not make it where they were.”
One who came back, Bernard Ncube, 52, has been unemployed for 10 years. He used to scrape a living by panning for gold near Killarney to feed his four children. Since being evicted, there has been no way to make money.
He was sent to Mbembesi village, about 50 miles from Bulawayo, and stayed three months. He had no relatives or friends there, and no work.
“It is far away. There was no way to live there. I came back here to find money to buy food,” he said, but he relies on Bulawayo churches for food.
“If I could find a job ... " He trailed off. “But now I can’t get a job. I can’t do anything.”
Another squatter who has returned to Killarney, Jealous Moyo, 46, had been sent with his wife and five children to stay with his younger sister in a village 125 miles from away. But his sister has eight children of her own, and within a few days it was obvious her husband could not feed everyone.
“I saw the food was too little,” he said. “I didn’t tell them the truth, that we could see they couldn’t afford to feed us.”
Recalling his old house, bulldozed to dust, he was wistful. It was brick, with a good snug roof and three small rooms, the kind of home he fears his family will never have again.