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Zimbabwe Police Burn Harare Squatter Shacks

In Zimbabwe, police torched dwellings in a poor squatter camp overnight and deployed more than 3,000 officers Friday to "monitor" the destruction of informal settlements around the capital, Harare. Residents rioted Thursday night in at least one township on the southern edge of the city as police arrested street vendors and burned their kiosks. VOA's Delia Robertson in Johannesburg spoke with a Zimbabwean print journalist - who asked to remain anonymous - about what he saw.

Q: There have been reports of unrest and also of people whose homes have been destroyed, informal dwellings, street traders whose goods have been confiscated, of many people being arrested, in Harare alone over 10,000, what is the current situation of this crackdown of street traders and people living in informal dwellings?

A: Well the crackdown against traders, who by the way are not street [traders], but are people who are operating from legally licensed places, has intensified and spread to a crackdown on people living in so-called informal housing or illegal houses, and late last night water tanks of the police drove into an area called Harare South and razed down their houses.

Most of these people are living, who have been organized or set up under cooperatives, and most of them ironically were given stands by the ruling party before the elections, as a way of vote buying and so last night, the police using tanks - water tanks - and armoured military vehicles moved in and razed them down to the ground.

As you have said, yes, more than 10,000 people have been arrested under the current crackdown but ironically enough I have just been driving around and I have just seen a formation of police vehicles heading toward White Cliff Camp, which is an informal or illegal settlement by members of the police, the army and the war veterans.

So what we may see today is a clash between members of the police, the army and the war veterans who stay there, with the police on other hand who have been razing down the houses because some of the houses that have been built there are very beautiful and modern houses.

Q: So it's not only informal dwellings that have been destroyed but also homes that people have built with bricks and mortar?

A: Yes, and the authorities explanation for that is, the houses may have been built with bricks and mortar, but as long as they are built on undesignated areas then that makes them illegal structures and the minister of local government national housing was on TV just now, and he was saying that the cleanup campaign was meant to return Harare to its former image of one of the world's cleanest cities, formally known as sunshine city.

But a lot of skeptics are saying that this is an operation that has spun out of control. Initially they wanted to look for foreign currency only, the informal trade only, among informal traders, but then quickly they were criticized for attacking people who were earning an honest living, and attracting labels like that this was being done in order to punish urban dwellers because they had voted for the opposition MDC, and now I think as an afterthought the government has said well, we are also going into informal settlements and they know that among those informal settlements most of them were parceled out under ZANU-PF housing schemes.

So maybe this is a way out for the ruling party or for the government in order to appear as if they are impartial and that they are pursuing a genuine attempt to clean up the capital and not punish residents for having voted for the opposition, in the March 31 election.

Q: Apart from people who have been arrested, how many people affecting throughout the country - I understand similar actions are taking place in Gweru and other towns - is there any indication of how many people are being left homeless by this?

A: Well to start with I had a chat with the chairman of the Combined Harare Residents Association, and he says more than half the people that living in Harare live either in these illegal shacks, or as lodgers in other people's houses. So what this is going to have in terms of effect, is to push up the prices of accommodation and leave a lot of people homeless.

But then on the other hand in rural areas, where some sort half-hearted attempts have been made to crack down on people, it's not going to have much of an effect. I think that the crackdown in rural areas was part of the attempt to appear impartial because the ruling party or the government enjoys most of its support in rural areas, and so I think this was just a way of building up a defense - in order to say that you say we have attacked urban areas because they have voted for the MDC, we are also attacking the rural areas but they voted for the government.

Q: What is the reaction of Zimbabweans in general and particularly those who are affected by this?

A: Well Zimbabwean people are a crushed lot. They are, their spirits have been broken by years of persistent, consistent harassment, abuse, torture, the use of military to crack down on demonstrations, and so for the first few days of this, they allowed themselves to be pushed around, beaten up and so on.

But since Friday last week, we have seen a lot of resistance from Zimbabweans. All this started in the volatile constituency of St. Mary's, where five police details were beaten up as they went about destroying shacks and illegal flea markets, and so from then on it was more like spontaneous reactions, and we had government buses being stoned in the same area.

And so the resistance moved on to Glenview, on Wednesday, where the people of Glenview also did not stand by and let their properties be destroyed, and so they also hit back at the police, and we had a very big supermarket being looted by angry residents. And so over the past few days, police have not just been destroying unchallenged, the people have now said enough is enough, and they are hitting back.

And we even saw that being highlighted, in the state-controlled newspape Herald a picture of a policeman running for his dear life as angry residents bayed for his blood.

Q: Do you think this might drive Zimbabweans to a point of desperation and that this sort of resistance could spread?

A: At the rate at which the government has been cracking down on its own citizens, I think it is not, it would not be strange if the people rose up one day and said enough was enough. Because they also can't get real reasons on why this is happening - because no government wants to be viewed in the way the current Zimbabwean government is being viewed by people, that it is a cruel, uncaring, vindictive government.

Nobody can explain what is happening, and so - yes, anything can happen. And, especially in view of the fact that the majority of urban dwellers livelihoods - which is that of informal operations, has been taken away.

Their accommodation is now comprised, and coming on the back of the fact that they have no steady income to depend on, the majority will now also have to deal with high accommodation prices, so when pushed against the corner like this - anything can happen.

And of course, the opposition may also take advantage of the people's anger and its possible that they might mobilize the people behind the scenes, and so a combination of people's anger and organization might work against the government.