The air was filled with dust and fear as riot police with guns forced Farisai Gatawa’s husband to tear down the couple’s one-room shack on the outskirts of the capital, Harare. That night they slept on cardboard in the wind. Nyasha, their baby girl of 2 weeks, grew cold, coughed and would not settle.
At dawn, Gatawa, 27, sat amid the chaos and panic of the spreading government-ordered demolitions, cradling her dying baby, with not the vaguest idea how to save her. At 8 in the morning, Nyasha’s eyes closed and no amount of rocking, hugging or nursing would bring her back. It is winter in Zimbabwe, and the mother believes she died of cold.
Some have called it the war on the poor. Hundreds of thousands have been left homeless as the government enters the fifth week of a national campaign to tear down every unauthorized shack or street stall in cities big and small, and even in remote rural villages.
“These are the poorest of the poor,” said David Coltart, a parliament member from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. “This was horrifying, the scale of it.”
Police vans cruise the streets with loudspeakers telling people to pull down shacks. Men with grim faces attack their modest shelters with hammers, mallets and their bare hands. Subdued families roost on the leftover rubble and timber.
In a massive piece of social engineering sure to change Zimbabwe’s political landscape for years, President Robert Mugabe’s regime is driving the urban poor, who generally support the opposition, into the countryside. The intent, critics say, is to build strongholds of support for the ruling ZANU-PF party in Zimbabwe’s cities and break up pockets of opposition. The government says it is simply cracking down on illegal stalls and shacks.
Operation Murambatsvina, a Shona phrase for “clean out the filth,” has already sent 200,000 people into the streets, according to United Nations estimates. Nongovernmental organizations like the Harare Residents Assn. estimate that at least 1 million will be uprooted before the campaign is over. About 30,000 were arrested, mostly for trading violations.
U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli described the demolitions as a “tragedy, crime, horror that the government of Zimbabwe is perpetrating on its people.” On Monday, the U.N. said it would send a special envoy to the country to investigate the crackdown.
“We are thinking now, ‘Are we dirty or are our houses dirty?’ ” said Mbare resident George Goko, 32, who was forced to pull down his shack three weeks ago.
Roads across the country are packed with homeless people pushing handcarts filled with their possessions, or crowding onto buses heading for remote villages where they or their parents were born. Gas shortages force many to walk for miles in search of new homes. Once they arrive, they are greeted by the chronic hunger and unemployment that plague rural Zimbabwe, and village chiefs who often tell them to go back where they came from.
In Hatcliffe, a shantytown on dry grassland outside Harare where hundreds of shacks were demolished, Dominican nuns were ordered to tear down a day center they had set up for 120 orphans.
Anna Chipene, the center’s caretaker, sat glumly beside the ashes of a dead fire, a sad symbol of her life in Hatcliffe. She has no choice but to go back to her ancestral village.
“All I can do is go to my home area and just wait for the day I die with my relatives around me,” she said.
The nine-room center had a clinic where antiretroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS were administered. The patients, many of them children, are now scattered.
One of the nuns, Sister Patricia Walsh, is trying to trace them but has little hope of finding even half. “We are worried sick about them,” she said. “It was the brutality of it that was unacceptable,” she said of the demolitions.
In recent days, police have beaten some Hatcliffe residents still sleeping there in the open fields, and burned parts of the area to try to drive remaining people away, opposition parliamentarian Trudy Stevenson said.
Mugabe says the aim of the campaign is to stop illegal activities that are undermining the economy. “The current chaotic state of affairs, where small-to-medium enterprises operated outside of the regulatory framework and in undesignated and crime-ridden areas, could not be countenanced much longer,” Mugabe said as he convened parliament June 9.
The country’s informal traders are in fact the most vibrant part of a national economy collapsing under triple-digit inflation, depleted foreign currency reserves and land seizures that have stifled Zimbabwe’s ability to feed itself.
The Movement for Democratic Change sees the evictions as purely political, as the government seeks retribution against those who voted for the opposition in controversial parliamentary elections in March. The vote was condemned as a sham by the U.S., the European Union and human rights groups, including Amnesty International.
Severe hunger, particularly in rural areas, has magnified the effect of the upheavals. Pius Ncube, the Roman Catholic archbishop for the southwestern city of Bulawayo, said in an interview that since the elections the regime has distributed scarce grain according to political lines, depriving areas that voted for the opposition.
A new electoral system used in March allowed the government to pinpoint how groups of a few hundred or even a few dozen voted. Ballots from each polling booth were collected in separate boxes for three groups -- those with last names beginning with A to L, M, and N to Z. Government critics charge that the system allowed the ruling party to isolate small pockets of opposition support and, even by surname, mete out retribution.
“Their vote is no longer secret. It’s only secret in a small group,” said Topper Whitehead of the Free Zimbabwe Support Group, an organization of anti-government activists. “They [the authorities] want to dilute the opposition and punish people for voting anti ZANU-PF.
“The people have got nowhere to go, so they have to go back to their rural areas, and they become much easier to control because they join the rural folk who are more spread out and more reliant on the government.”
But the reception is cold in many of these rural districts. Operation Murambatsvina has already begun to reach into the countryside, with rural settlements on the demolition list. So some local chiefs are turning away evictees flooding in from the cities, withholding maize, the staple food, as well as permission to build homes and businesses.
“The vast majority of chiefs are not quite party hacks, but they have been totally subverted and they’ve been given cars and all” by the ruling party, said Coltart, the opposition lawmaker.
Farisai Gatawa and her husband, Archford, watched baby Nyasha’s little coffin vanish into the ground, then set out a few days later for Murewa, his parents’ hometown.
“We had no choice but to go, but we’re sleeping in the open there. In the rural areas, they’re saying to go back to Harare. The chief and the other people told us to go back,” Farisai said.
Lavenda Richard also buried a daughter this month. In Mabvuku, outside Harare, 2-year-old Chaneni Nyika toddled toward her mother with her hand outstretched for a piece of sugarcane when a wall under demolition toppled on her, killing her and crushing her mother’s leg.
“I feel so angry. It goes straight to the government. They’re the ones I blame,” Richard said.
Now she has nowhere to go. “If I go to the country, the head man will turn us away and say, ‘You never did anything for this area.’ I don’t even know where to start.”
After refusing most food aid last year, Mugabe recently agreed to let the World Food Program resume general emergency distribution for up to 4 million people, about a third of the population. But it could take four months before the food arrives.
Opposition figures argue that not only will the evictions undermine efforts to rally anti-government forces as hunger and shortages bite in coming months, they will also enable ZANU-PF to extend its network of patronage and control by giving supporters new housing and licenses for market stalls.
Public Works Minister Ignatius Chombo told the pro-government Herald newspaper that the administration would provide affordable urban housing to people on farms around Harare and would make sure that “genuine” informal traders were relocated to designated areas.
The minister for small and medium businesses, Sithembiso Nyoni, spelled out plans in a recent television interview to carefully screen future traders and recipients of housing, forcing the poor to prove they support the government, Coltart said.
“They have said that they will have screening processes, they will want police reports. There’s no doubt that that is also part of the intention, to make your livelihood dependent on having a [ZANU-PF] party card, as is the case in rural areas,” Coltart said. “If there’s a whole sector of society that’s reliant on ZANU-PF to live, that will inevitably erode our support.”
Many regime critics, like Archbishop Ncube, have called for peaceful protest. But people are hungry and have no shelter.
“The fire has gone out of the people,” Whitehead said. “They have been beaten into submission.”