Zimbabwe undercover: how Mugabe is burning opponents out of their homes

Our reporter watches covertly as the urban poor are driven into the countryside in a campaign reminiscent of Pol Pot

From the road you could see the smoke climbing out of the bush like giant black trees. Driving along the burnt-red dirt track, the only sign of life was a bewildered woman carrying a baby. She waved in the direction of the charred mud huts, and kept repeating the word "police".

She said that seven truckloads of police with assault rifles had come in the morning. They had forced people from their homes at gunpoint and set them alight. "They told us to get out. They told us they will come back with dogs tonight to make sure we are gone," she told The Independent on Sunday.

Beauty and her two children are just the latest victims of a Pol Pot-style campaign waged by President Robert Mugabe to empty the cities and force the population into the countryside. It is a war that has been launched with a concerted attack on the country's poorest and weakest people. Hundreds of thousands living in squatter camps or working in street markets have had their homes demolished or their livelihoods. Mr Mugabe calls the campaign a "clean-up operation" to restore order and beauty to the cities. His critics accuse him of waging a vindictive war on those who didn't vote for his Zanu-PF party in the March general election.

Nearly half a million people have been displaced in a drought-stricken country where conservative estimates say that four million are in immediate need of food aid. The United Nations and the World Food Programme are warning of a "humanitarian disaster". "This is like Pol Pot, corralling people into the countryside where they can be controlled and indoctrinated," said Shari Appel, a Zimbabwe resident and human rights expert. "We're heading into the dark ages here. What we're going to see is selective starvation. He wants people hungry and compliant," said Ms Appel.

Mr Mugabe shows no sign of following Pol Pot's personal example and moving to a rural mud hut. He continues to live in majesty in an expensive district of Harare, where a strict 6pm-to-6am curfew ensures no one can so much as approach the perimeter wall. Until yesterday, Beauty and her family had lived in a one-room house with mud walls and a corrugated iron and thatched roof. They were one of up to 400 families living in the Kirllany squatter camp on the outskirts of Bulawayo. Now, only the blackened shell remains and the thick smell of burning thatch fills the air.

As the word spread that we weren't police, people started to appear out of the bush. Many barefoot, they came crunching through the husks of their failed maize crop, carrying whatever they had left. Angry and confused, they wanted to know why the police would do this and where they were supposed to go?

One woman, still breast-feeding her baby, said there was nothing they could do. "What can we do to stop them? They had guns. They came suddenly and then they were shouting, 'Get away!' Where are we supposed to go?" she asked. As she spoke, a few hundred metres away on the main road, police pickups with armed men patrolled the roads. Further away roadblocks were set up to stop anyone coming closer to find out what was going on.

These scenes have been repeated throughout Zimbabwe. At the Victoria Falls, the crowning glory of a once flourishing tourism industry, an estimated 30,000 people were evicted from squatter camps in a two-day operation thatcontinued yesterday. As their homes were torched and their possessions looted by the security forces, they were told to "go home". One resident said he heard a government minister on the radio, saying that "the black man comes from the countryside and should go back to the countryside".

In the capital, Harare, entire squatter camps - home to the majority of the urban poor - have been emptied and burned. Trudy Stevenson, an MP with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, witnessed hundreds of people being loaded on to trucks and sent one way, while their possessions were taken elsewhere. The government insists that their campaign, dubbed "Murambatsvina", or "drive out trash", was a long-overdue purge of the informal economy.

AG Ndlovu, the deputy mayor of Bulawayo, says this is a fiction. "The government came to us and told us to destroy the markets and we said 'no. This is illegal'. They were legally there, we had given them standards, told them where to put their things. They had applied and been given licences."

In the past, repression has tended to focus on the opposition stronghold of Matabeleland, with Bulawayo as its capital, and home to the Ndebele people who make up 20 per cent of the population. But the latest campaign has hit just as hard in Harare, where the majority are, like Mr Mugabe himself, part of the Nshona tribe.

The results of the 31 March elections - condemned by all but Mr Mugabe's allies in neighbouring countries as illegitimate - showed that Zanu-PF has lost the cities to the opposition MDC. With the economy in freefall after a five-year period in which Zimbabwe has moved from being the breadbasket of Africa to famine, even an allegedly rigged election cannot hide the scale of the crisis. Agricultural output has been devastated by the farm invasions that masqueraded as much-needed land reform.

Little is moving on the streets as foreign currency reserves hit rock bottom and fuel imports have dried up. Fuel queues are so much part of daily life that newspapers advise readers on which is the most sociable queue to wait the four to five days it takes to get petrol. An attempted two-day national strike, organised by opposition groups, human rights activists, churches and unions was thwarted by a campaign of state intimidation. Graffiti on the city walls call for an uprising. But those who still have homes stay put out of fear.

"The severity of the onslaught shows how desperate the state is," said Graham Shaw, a former Methodist pastor turned rights campaigner. "If they're raiding street vendors for foreign currency then they're close to the end. Lots of people are saying it's time to take to the streets, but nobody wants to lead them."

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