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Zimbabwe's Poor Battered by Recent Urban Clean-Up Drive

Armed policemen keep a close eye as a bulldozer demolishes a home in Kambuzuma, Harare
The Zimbabwean government's clean-up drive has left thousands destitute, streetside vendors' kiosks destroyed, and led to the arrest of at least 22,000 people. This recent crackdown is causing extreme hardship for already impoverished urban citizens.

The government says the crackdown, called Operation Restore Order, is aimed at ridding urban areas of illegal shelters, rooting out hoarding and illegal trade in scarce materials and clamping down on illegal foreign currency dealing.

Street vendors, informal manufacturers and others including women selling fruit and vegetables on the sidewalk, were the first to be ordered to leave regardless of whether or not they had a legal license to sell their wares.

Some of the women are, however, back on the streets. Two who have been carrying out their business at the same spot for more than 10 years spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity. The first one said arrest is an option they must risk as selling fruit and vegetables is their only source of income.

“We have to take the risk," one woman said, "because we have to feed our children. The children need money for school fees. Life has become very difficult.”

Playing cat and mouse with the police has its risks though. The second woman was arrested and spent a night in jail and was released after paying a three dollar fine.

“It's really tough, I was arrested last Friday," says a second woman. "I was only released after paying a fine for illegal vending.”

The women say they are going to respond to the government's call to apply for new licenses, but in the meantime they will continue to do what they must to feed their children.

After dealing with the traders, the authorities turned to illegal housing. As a result of the lack of available homes in most urban areas in Zimbabwe, many homeowners in the low income areas erected wooden cabins on their properties.

Also targeted were housing cooperatives, which mushroomed on former white farms adjacent to the capital in the wake of the land reform program launched in 2000. Cooperatives set up by war veterans have also fallen victim to the blitz. A reporter who witnessed the demolition of expensive properties at one of them says the ZANU-PF Party office in the area was first to be demolished.

Mike Davis of the Combined Harare Residents Association, a group representing the city's residents, estimates the number of people rendered homeless by Operation Restore Order is about a 250,000.

"Even people with employment in the city have had their structures destroyed and been told that there is no place for them here in the city and they must go back to their rural homes,” he said. “If you take a drive to the north tonight you will see on the side of the roads out towards Domboshawa as many as ten thousand people just camping in the open and as you know we are in winter now, it's very cold. These people are suffering."

The crackdown on poor Zimbabweans comes at a time when the country is experiencing its worst economic and political crises since independence in 1980 when President Robert Mugabe came into office. Some estimates put unemployment at as high as more than 80 percent and inflation at more than 100 percent. The opposition has disputed the result of the March 31 parliamentary election just as it did not accept the 2000 general and 2002 presidential elections citing widespread violence, fraud and rigging.

The crackdown has been widely condemned at home and abroad. Miloon Kothari of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has appealed to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Zimbabwe to immediately stop the mass forced evictions.

A coalition of opposition groupings has called for a work stoppage Thursday and Friday to protest what they call an onslaught on the poor. The police have promised to deal ruthlessly with "any elements bent on disrupting peace in this country."