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Children Not Spared in Zimbabwe Crackdown

Zimbabwe Thursday joins other countries in observing the Day of the African Child. The day is commemorated to honor the memory of black school children who were shot by South African police on June 16, 1976 when they marched in Soweto to protest the quality of education provided by the apartheid government. But authorities in Zimbabwe have shown little restraint in their treatment of children during an ongoing crackdown on informal settlements and traders.

Catherine Harande carries pieces of wood she recovered from destroyed home in Mabvuku, Zimbabwe
Estimates of the number of people who have been rendered homeless during the government's Operation Restore Order now run as high as one million. The number includes children who are sleeping in the open with their parents and whose schooling has been disrupted by the forced evictions.

As part of their mission to bring glamour back to the country's cities, the authorities have descended on children living in the streets arresting and taking them to holding centers. But conditions at the centers are such that some of the children escape and are soon back on the streets.

Some described their experiences to VOA on condition they are not identified. One 17-year-old never made it to a holding center. He claims when he was picked up by police he was assaulted and detained for five days without food. On the fifth day he claims he fainted and was dumped at a hospital by police.

Speaking in Shona he described what happened at the hospital. "They gave me some glucose and said I must eat and after some hours I felt stronger. I also got an injection which they said would give me strength. When I felt better I left," he said.

He showed VOA his treatment card on which he said he gave the hospital a false name for fear of being tracked down. It did not say what treatment he received.

A second child who is 13 said he was twice put in holding centers and twice he escaped. He said children were held with people whose homes were demolished and are now being accommodated in tents. He said they did get some food but the treatment was more than he could take. "It is the beatings I could not stand, the treatment is rough, it is just not right," he said.

Non-governmental organizations that look after the welfare of children have so far been denied access to the children in the holding centers. A spokesperson for one of the organizations, who also requested anonymity, expressed the collective frustration felt by the aid groups.

"So far what we have heard is that they are being taken to a place called Caledonia Farm but we have not obtained access or been allowed to get there such that we don't really know the position and the state of the children themselves how they are being fed, if they are getting enough basic needs and all that," she said.

Attempts to get a comment from the government department of social welfare were unsuccessful.

A UNICEF official who visited one of the centers described conditions as appalling. The U.N. agency is providing cooking utensils, water, blankets and crayons and paper for the children.

As part of its week-long commemoration of the Day of the African Child, Zimbabwe television broadcast the graduation of members of its National Youth Service. Critics of the government have condemned the youth service saying the graduates are used by the ruling ZANU-PF as its militias who go about terrorizing ordinary Zimbabweans. The government denies the charge saying the program is meant to instill patriotism in the youths.