Mugabe Defends Razing of Zimbabwe Shantytowns

The Zimbabwean government's campaign to wipe out shantytowns has left an estimated 200,000 people homeless. President Robert Mugabe says the three-week-old operation is a "cleanup" designed to restore the country's "sanity." Critics say it's intended to punish city dwellers for opposing Mugabe and have launched a two-day strike.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, co-host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, co-host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. The government of Zimbabwe has launched a campaign to wipe out the country's shantytowns. This campaign has destroyed tens of thousands of homes and small businesses. Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, says the three-week-old operation is designed to restore the country's sanity. Opposition groups say the action is really meant to punish Zimbabwe's city dwellers for voting against Mugabe in recent elections. Now they have launched a two-day general strike in protest. NPR's Jason Beaubien was in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, yesterday, and has this report.

JASON BEAUBIEN reporting:

The program to clean up Zimbabwe's cities has reduce many of Harare's poorest slums to piles of rubble. Three weeks ago, police in riot gear launched the blitz to destroy what the government says are illegal houses, most of them little more than shacks, in Zimbabwe's cities. On the outskirts of Harare, more than half of the houses in the township of Mabvuka have been knocked down. The roads are littered with chunks of concrete and brick. Tin and wood huts lie collapsed in on themselves. Beds, chairs, televisions and other household items, salvaged either before or after the demolition, are stacked by the side of the road. And now, many of the people who lost their homes are leaving.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Near the main road, men are loading wardrobes, mattresses and other furniture onto a flatbed truck.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER MUWAMBAY(ph) (Had House Destroyed): We have kids as young as this.

(Through Translator) We've got kids as young as this. They're sleeping in the open, and this is winter in Zimbabwe.

BEAUBIEN: Christopher Muwambay had his house destroyed last week. Now, like tens of thousands of other city dwellers, he's heeding the government's advice and moving back to his ancestral homelands in rural Zimbabwe. Once there, the 37-year-old says he'll have to rely on relatives to survive.

Mr. MUWAMBAY: But the point is, we are moving to our rural homes.

(Through Translator) The point is, we're moving to our rural homes where there is virtually nothing. It's a bad year. There's drought. There's no food.

BEAUBIEN: A week ago, UN officials estimated that the crackdown on illegal houses in Zimbabwe has left 200,000 people homeless. That number has gone up ever further as the campaign continues. In Shona, the dominant local language, the crackdown is called Murambatsvina. The government translates this as Operation Restore Order, but it can also be loosely translated as Drive Out the Rubbish. Muwambay says truckloads of police descended on his neighborhood, declared all the buildings to be illegal and ordered him and his neighbors to tear down their own homes. He says he doesn't understand why the government is doing this.

Mr. MUWAMBAY: During the war, people would be taken...

(Through Translator) During the war, people would be taken and put in camps, but they would be given food. They would be given accommodation. That would get this and that. But this is a crisis. I've never even read about this kind of thing where a government destroys the accommodation for its own people. It's some kind of madness.

BEAUBIEN: The police in southern Africa's most troubled nation haven't just targeted urban shanty dwellers. They've also shut down the numerous unlicensed street vendors who used to sell vegetables, clothes and other small items from rickety wooden stands. Over the last three weeks, entire markets in Harare have been bulldozed, burned and then, after the ashes cooled, bulldozed again. Trudy Stevenson, a member of parliament from the main opposition party, the MDC, believes there are several reasons why the government launched this attack on the slums. Partly, she says, it's punishment for the cities voting heavily against Mugabe in the March elections. She also thinks it's a way to distract people from the daylong gas lines, the 125 percent inflation and the acute shortages of sugar, milk and grain.

Ms. TRUDY STEVENSON (Parliament Member, MDC): But I think the more serious and sinister agenda, in my view, is a kind of Pol Pot thing, that you drive the people from the cities out into the rural areas so that they cannot organize themselves. They can't communicate, so they can't threaten the regime.

BEAUBIEN: And if that is the intent of Operation Restore Order, it appears to be working. A nationwide strike called for by the opposition to protest the crackdown fizzled yesterday. Most urban Zimbabweans went about their normal routines. As morning commuters in Harare rushed to work, they were met in the streets by the newly homeless, pushing their worldly goods in wheelbarrows and pushcarts towards the outskirts of town.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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