Mugabe's Forcible "Clearance" of 2.4 Million of His Own People in Operation Murambatsvina: A Tragic Legacy, Two Years Later
by Constance Manika
- Zimbabwe -
My conscience has not let me rest since I last visited the small mining town of Bindura, about 90 kilometers outside Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital.
At just about this time of year in 2005, I traveled to Bindura on assignment to observe first-hand the devastating effects of Robert Mugabe’s Operation Murambatsvina. Officially known as “Operation Restore Order,” but directly translated as “Operation Drive Out the Filth,” it wreaked havoc, leaving millions of the urban and rural poor homeless or destitute.
Operation Murambatsvina began with the demolition of not only people’s homes, but of thousands of informal vending sites and backyard industries that were their means of survival. It is this black market economy that Mugabe blames for the country’s economic meltdown. Mostly executed by the police, the demolitions were carried out by bulldozers and simple manpower in settlements around the capital; some particularly unfortunate souls were forced at gunpoint to destroy their own homes. After defending this operation which devastated huge urban areas, Mugabe then announced his plans to carry out similar demolitions in the rural farming areas.
At the time, Mugabe claimed he was ridding our cities and towns of illegal housing structures that had turned the country into a "shanty town" and that he was thereby also preventing the spread of infectious diseases. However, we all knew that he was punishing the urbanites, who comprise the majority of his opposition, for not voting for his ZANU PF party in the March 2005 elections.
My trip coincided with the peak of the operation’s political maelstrom which –according to the United Nations (UN) – left at least 700,000 people homeless; more than 2.4 million others found themselves without a livelihood.
My colleagues and I were following a lead about a woman living at a mining compound known as Kitsiyatota after having lost her home during the clampdown. Unable to handle the loss of her home, Charity Mutasa went into premature labor and gave birth in the open, on a very cold winter evening. With neither an experienced nurse nor even a traditional midwife present, Charity was assisted by some of her neighbors and safely gave birth to a healthy baby girl.
Charity could not be rushed to the hospital because all of her identity documents and what money she had to pay for medical care had been destroyed in the sudden and unexpected demolition of her home. The hospital would have undoubtedly turned her away because without these national documents and with no address to locate her after her discharge, the hospital would have no guarantee of recovering payment from her.When we arrived at Kitsiyatota to cover the story, we had no problem tracking Charity down: news of the "Murambatsvina" miracle baby had already filtered through the small mining compound. We found Charity sitting tiredly in a makeshift house pieced together with plastic and bits of broken asbestos that had survived the demolition. Unbelievably, only a few hours after giving birth, this woman, with the help of a few neighbors, had been able to build this "house” to shield her newborn baby from the winter cold.
After we had crawled into her plastic home and started the interview, we all had a good laugh: part of the makeshift house fell in on our driver!
This was one of the most touching stories of Operation Murambatsvina that I covered. I was thoroughly disturbed when I saw women, children and the elderly sleeping out in the cold like animals, thanks to the evil minds of Robert Mugabe and his government cronies.
After leaving the small mining compound, I could not stop thinking about this brave woman and her child.
When I got back from Bindura I told my husband that I felt good as a journalist for covering the story; my editor was happy that I had brought this "big scoop" back to the newsroom. But deep down, I felt really guilty. I worried that perhaps I had just milked this woman and her community for their story, made a good name for myself in the process, and had then forgotten about them.
My husband did his best to console me, telling me that as a journalist I had done my part to expose their suffering and that now concerned people and the donor community would respond to help the affected families. I knew my husband was right, but in the back of mind I felt it wasn’t enough. I yearned to do more, but what? Under the country’s harsh economy, our two salaries were barely enough to see us through to the end of the month.
Immediately after my story ran in the paper, I learned that the Red Cross Society of Zimbabwe and the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) had moved in to assist affected families with blankets, food, clothes, medication and other needed supplies. So, for some time I was consoled. Then other organizations came to help and though this should have been reassuring, the image of Charity and her newborn baby continued to haunt me.
Towards the end of June 2005, the government launched an operation known as Garikai/Hlalani Kuhle (House the Poor People). Crassly conceived as damage control, Garikai/Hlalani Kuhle was started just a few days before United Nations envoy Anna Tibaijuka, the Executive Director of the UN Human Settlements Programme, was scheduled to arrive. She was coming to assess the damage that Operation Murambatsvina had inflicted on the innocent people of Zimbabwe. Because the demolition had triggered widespread outrage from various human rights organizations and the international community, Mugabe and his corrupt ministers were eager to cover up the results of their brutal policy.After two weeks of assessing the damage, Tanzanian-born Tibaijuka concluded in her report that Operation Murambatsvina was "unjustified and cruel" having caused "untold suffering" on the people of Zimbabwe. Tibaijuka declared that this operation had left "vulnerable groups more exposed and confronting death from starvation and disease."
Enraged that the UN had effectively exposed his government, Mugabe then blocked the UN from coming into Zimbabwe to assist the affected people, even though it had mobilized millions of dollars to rebuild houses for those affected.
Finally, last week, after soliciting donations from colleagues, friends and other welfare organizations (through the help of my friend, James Elder, from Unicef), I had quite a load to take with me to Bindura. Accompanied by James's assistant, Tsitsi Singizi, my husband and his brother, I hit the road on Friday July 13th.
When we arrived, I immediately went to the place where I had left Charity in her makeshift house in 2005. And sure enough, the structure was still there, only a bit bigger and much stronger! My heart skipped a beat. When we knocked, a voice I immediately recognized told us to come in. I heaved a sigh of relief and this time I walked in, instead of crawling!
When our eyes met and we recognized each other, Charity’s face turned pale in disbelief. Moving forward to embrace her, I felt her whole body tremble with joy as she began to cry. I wanted to cry too, but when I felt Tsitsi's hand on my shoulder, I knew I had to be strong. When she finally calmed down, we exchanged pleasantries; then we talked, for hours.
It was unbelievable that after two years this woman and her daughter had survived and were very much alive! But sadly, they were still living in appalling conditions, just as we had left her.
This is the brutal reality that so many people live with daily. Two years after Operation Murambatsvina, many Zimbabweans who lost their homes are still living in the cold, barely shielded from the elements by makeshift houses cobbled together with found materials.
When Mugabe's government implemented Operation Murambatsvina, it claimed that it wanted to build better houses for the poor. But for most victims, this is still just a pipe dream.When all is said and done, Operation Murambatsvina is one thing neither the urban population of Zimbabwe nor Charity from Kitsiyatota will ever forget. Never in a million years will Mugabe win their vote. And he sure as hell isn’t going to get mine.
My conscience is clear now; I am not haunted by memories of Charity and her beautiful daughter any more. I now know that God always looks out for his own. This is the reason why Charity and many others affected by this cruel operation are still alive. In spite of the harsh conditions, they endure.
It is my hope that before long, the hardworking people of Zimbabwe will get the justice they so deserve.
About the Author
Constance Manika is a journalist who works for the independent press in Zimbabwe. She writes under this pseudonym to escape prosecution from a government whose onslaught and level of intolerance to journalists in the independent press is well documented.
In Meltdown in Zimbabwe, an exclusive and ongoing series at The WIP, Constance provides continued on-the-ground reporting from her embattled country where Zimbabweans struggle daily for democracy, economic sustainability and human rights.