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Joy a Long Time Coming for Zimbabwe's Displaced

Ruvimbo Gare, with her brother take time to relax at Caledonia Farm, a transit camp for thousands of people displaced by the clean up campaign in Zimbabwe
The Zimbabwean government recently announced an end to Operation Drive Out the Filth, the demolition of unapproved residential structures and business premises. One of the stated objectives of the dismantling was to clean-up the country's urbancenters.

The residents of Hatcliffe Extension, a settlement of some 15,000 people, just outside Harare, paid for and were allocated stands by the government in 1991. The authorities provided the wooden cabins they lived in. Those who had the means were putting up brick structures.

However, one evening at the end of May, the police came and ordered residents to demolish their homes and set them on fire. The residents say the police told them they were following orders and threatened to beat anybody who refused to demolish his own home. They say the police disregarded lease documents.

When the sun came up the next day, their homes had been reduced to ashes and rubble. Some people left. The rest were taken to Caledonia Farm, where they were told they would stay for three days, after which they would be taken to rural homes. Almost two months later, the majority were still at Caledonia Farm which, by this time, was being described as a transit camp.

After proving to the authorities that they had paid for their stands, they were taken back to Hatcliffe Extension. For shelter, the government promised every household four asbestos sheets and poles to make a three-by-five meter shed, regardless of family size. They were told that using plastic sheeting or any other material to wall off the structure was not allowed, because that would create a shanty town.

Some three weeks after they moved out of Caledonia Farm, very few have received the promised asbestos and poles. The majority have been left with no choice but to put up structures using anything they can lay their hands on - plastic sheeting that looks like it has been recycled numerous times, metal sheets and cardboard.

As if losing their homes is not enough, some of those who were employed have also lost their jobs. VOA spoke to residents who asked not to be named. One man, whose four-room cabin was torched, also lost his job.

"I was working as a builder, but lost my job because of the tsunami as Caledonia Farm was too far for me to get to work," he said.

Hatcliffe Extension has never had any running water and the residents get their drinking water from unprotected ground wells. There are no real toilets. As a result of over exposure to the elements and the lack of sanitary facilities, a resident says disease is rife in the settlement, especially among the children.

"Our little ones are having all kinds of skin diseases," she said. "They also have colds and various stomach ailments."

She says their school-age children have missed months of the current school term. The neighborhood school closed at the beginning of the clean-up and has yet to re-open. The woman says, instead of cleaning up the settlement, the government's forced removals campaign has made Hatcliffe Extension a place of filth.

"Before the demolitions, we looked after our stands. But now there is so much rubble around, it's not clean at all," she explained.

Another concern is that the humanitarian organizations that provided them with water and toilets at Caledonia Farm have not been to Hatcliffe Extension. Representatives of humanitarian organizations, who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity, says the government is making access to those in need difficult. This is despite promises made to United Nations Resident Coordinator in Zimbabwe Agostinho Zacarias who says the government promised to allow assistance to those in need.

"We have discussed and we received assurance, from the government, that, if there is a quick need for shelter, the U.N. will make available the shelter for the people to be there," he said.

A United Nations official says the government has finally agreed to the people being provided with tents. Still, he complains progress is very slow. He says it does not seem to be a priority to have these people housed.

Some observers say the removal of people from the so-called transit camps was to make them "invisible" They say many thousands have been dumped in remote rural areas, where international delegations and humanitarian organizations have little or no access.

State Security Minister Didymus Mutasa is quoted on the "Zim Online" newsletter as saying the South African Council of Churches, which has launched a relief campaign for the displaced and homeless, is pursuing a political agenda.

At Hatcliffe Extension, the government-run reconstruction program, Operation Garikai, has barely begun, with workmen digging the foundations of houses. The residents are worried they may not be able to raise the money for the new houses.

Some of the women complain they are not allowed to sell vegetables or other items, as they did before, to raise income to provide for their families, let alone to pay for the houses. At the moment, one of the most-immediate concerns is keeping warm during the cold southern African winter.

A report on the demolition activity by U.N. Special Envoy Anna Tibaijuka condemned the exercise. Her report says the destruction negatively impacted 700,000 Zimbabweans directly and 1.2 million, indirectly. The United Nations has called on the government to stop the destruction of people's homes and livelihoods.

Defending the campaign, President Robert Mugabe says it is meant to bring joy to those affected.

But one of the people whom VOA spoke to in Hatcliffe Extension sees it differently. He says the campaign was designed to punish the people of Zimbabwe for voting for the opposition MDC. He says it was meant to provoke the opposition into resisting or protesting the demolitions, which would have been an excuse for the government to destroy the party and kill its supporters.