Mugabe takes his revenge on poor by destroying thousands of homes

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The Independent Online

It's sunrise on the outskirts of Bulawayo. In the orange half-light you can see the huts are little more than bare mud walls. Everything that can be salvaged has been stripped off. The contents of the meagre homes now lie a few feet away in a scrapheap of rusting sheet metal, plastic pots and broken furniture.

Amid the wreckage, entire families huddle together under plastic sheets to get some shelter from the winter chill.

Julius is the first to crawl out, his breath making clouds in the cold air. He explains that the police came on Monday and told them they were evicted and they would be back to burn their homes down. No reason was given. "We removed everything we have," he says, pointing to the plastic-covered pile where he had been sleeping. "We are scared and we can't afford to lose this."

Julius's family is one of the poorest in Zimbabwe's already poverty-stricken second city, the capital of Matabeleland and the heartland of opposition to President Robert Mugabe. Yesterday, as Mr Mugabe travelled in an open-topped Rolls-Royce to the state opening of Parliament, Julius became the latest victim of what the government, dominated by Mugabe's Shona tribe, is calling "operation clean-up", aimed allegedly at beautifying cities.

The mud huts of Julius's village lie on a disused plain, scattered among the dry husks of the failed maize crop, that has left them on the edge of starvation.

A church worker, who preferred not to be named, hands out small sacks of porridge to the gathering crowd. "This is devastating. What are you cleaning? Nothing, you are cleaning nothing," he says. "This is a punishment, these people who have nothing are being punished for voting against Mugabe."

Human rights activists, churches, unions and opposition groups have unanimously condemned the "clean-up" as a brutal crackdown on the urban poor to punish them for voting against the government in the 31 March elections. In a matter of days, the campaign has seen the destruction of street markets and the mass arrest of traders; the demolition of shanty towns and the collapse of the informal economy upon which millions of the country's poor rely.

In the centre of Bulawayo, the once thriving 5th Street market is now a solemn stretch of twisted metal and charred wood.

Last week, without warning, police trucks arrived and the demolition began. Tons of fruit and vegetables, cooking oil, salt, sugar and other basic supplies were confiscated and the stalls were torched. Those who avoided arrest sit listlessly on the pavements. The little that is left is hawked cautiously on street corners. Sweet potatoes are offered warily, as though they are drugs.

Outside City Hall, faded white squares mark the spot where traders had laid out flowers, curios and carvings for the few remaining tourists who come to Bulawayo.

Today sees the second day of a nationwide two-day strike called by the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in response to the crisis. But it is virtually impossible for the "stay away" action to work in a country where only 800,000 from a population of 12 million have formal employment. There has been concerted intimidation with police saying they would be "ruthless" with strikers and going from door to door to warn employers that they face arrest if their businesses shut.

Military helicopters and fighter jets were running sorties yesterday over the poorer districts of the capital, Harare, while the police and troops were out in force on the streets of Bulawayo.

At least three members of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions were arrested during dawn raids, accused of organising strike action.

A human rights activist said, on condition of anonymity, that people were scared and memories of the 1980s massacres in the opposition stronghold of Matabeleland were still fresh.

"They know that, as things stand, if they take to the streets the army or the police will shoot them," she said.

People still refer in hushed tones to the pogrom of the so-called Gukurahundi - which means the rain that washes away the chaff. During that period, Mr Mugabe unleashed the North Korean-trained 5th Brigade in a killing spree to suppress opposition protests.

Despite yesterday's protests, police continued to drive out residents of at least one of Harare's poorest townships and the mass arrests, said to top 30,000, continue unabated.

"Police are now in Hatcliffe ... rounding everyone up and piling them on lorries. Their belongings are being put on separate lorries, so they fear they will lose everything," Trudy Stevenson, an opposition MP, said. "They are not being told where they are being taken, but they have the impression it is far away."

An opposition statement urged all Zimbabweans to participate in the strike.

According to UN estimates, at least 200,000 people have been made homeless and that follows a warning from the World Food Programme that Zimbabwe faces a "humanitarian crisis" with four million people at risk of famine.

Six Roman Catholic bishops condemned the crackdown, saying: "A grave crime has been committed against poor and helpless people. We warn the perpetrators ... history will hold you individually accountable."

Yesterday, Mr Mugabe quashed three days of rumours over the state of his health to appear at the opening of parliament, which he used as a platform to defend his decision to deprive tens of thousands of people of homes and livelihoods.

"The current chaotic state of affairs where [small businesses] operated outside the regulatory framework and in undesignated and crime-ridden areas could not be countenanced for much longer," he told parliament.

The 81-year-old President said the government would introduce mandatory penalties for illegal trade in foreign currency and precious metals, which official say has thrived in shanty towns.

Mr Mugabe's critics say the real reason for the destruction is the President's desire to empty the cities to pre-empt a major uprising. By forcing hundreds of thousands of potential opposition supporters into rural areas where the government controls the food supply, hunger can be used to cement the government's grip on power. A civil rights activist said: "What we are going to see is selective starvation. What Mugabe wants is a Pol Pot-style depopulation of the cities, corralling people into the countryside. Once they are there, they will be hungry and anxious and therefore compliant. "

The tactic is working in Julius's village. At the hut next door, Thenkiwe and her seven children are boiling some water but have nothing to put in it. Her husband has already left to find a day's work somewhere.

Julius, like his neighbours, has no rural retreat to go to. So he stands around and squints in the direction of town, waiting for the police and the bulldozers to come. The children won't be going to school today, for fear of being separated from their families.

The volunteers, who have run out of sacks of porridge, offer a prayer: "Lord, hide them from the police."

Milestones

* 1980: Robert Mugabe becomes Zimbabwe's Prime Minister after independence.

* 1987: He changes the constitution and becomes executive president.

* 1998: Economic crisis sets in; riots and strikes follow.

* 2000: Zimbabweans seize hundreds of white-owned farms.

* 2001: Donors cut aid in response.

* 2002: Mugabe is re-elected. Observers declare the election flawed. Commonwealth suspends Zimbabwe for a year. State of disaster declared over worsening food shortages.

* 2005: Mugabe's party, Zanu-PF, wins a parliamentary poll, enabling him to change the constitution. The opposition cries fraud.

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