MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
A year ago, the government of Zimbabwe launched something it called and urban cleanup drive. Police and soldiers went through the poorest neighborhoods of Zimbabwe's cities, destroying the homes and businesses of some 700,000 people.
Today, many of the people uprooted by the slum clearance campaign are still homeless and unemployed. Zimbabwe's economy is collapsing under 1,000 percent inflation. And human rights activists in the Southern African nation say the country is on the verge of social upheaval.
NPR's Jason Beaubien recently visited Zimbabwe, and he has this report.
JASON BEAUBIEN: The Mukuvisi River runs from east to west across Harare. As municipal services, such as sewers and garbage collection have broken down, the Mukuvisi has become a conduit for trash and raw sewage. It's also become a dumping ground for people.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)
BEAUBIEN: Hundreds of Harare residents whose homes were bulldozed during last years Operation Murambatsvina have built make shift shelters along the banks of the Mukuvisi. They're squat enclosures cobbled together out of plastic sheeting, asbestos panels, and random automotive parts: car doors, fenders, trunk lids.
None of the shelters is tall enough to stand up in. Their owners are literally trying to keep a low profile in the scrubby grasslands so they won't get moved on again by the police.
WINNIE KONDO: (Speaking foreign language)
BEAUBIEN: Winnie Kondo is sitting outside her rusty shack. She's feeding her 6-month-old son Bellington(ph) spoonfuls of cornmeal mush. Kondo used to make a living as a tailor, but she says her sewing machine was destroyed last year when the police bulldozed her three-room house. Now she can't even afford sugar, she says, for her son's porridge.
KONDO: (Speaking foreign language)
BEAUBIEN: I had twins, Kondo says. This is the one that's left. His sister, Belinda, died three months ago because of the cold, the rain, the mosquitoes. Kondo believes Belinda would still be alive today if the government hadn't destroyed her home.
In May of last year in a campaign that lasted for weeks, police and soldiers swept through the slums of Zimbabwe cities, destroying houses and informal markets. The government says it was a campaign to eliminate illegally constructed buildings. The drive flattened entire communities. At the time, police officials said peoples whose houses were destroyed should return to their rural ancestral homes. Back at the Mukuvisi River, another woman, Angela Kombi(ph), walks over to Kondo's hut. Kombi also lost her house in Operation Murambatsvina.
ANGELA KOMBI: (Speaking foreign language)
BEAUBIEN: My kids haven't eaten anything all day, Kombi says. It's hard for me. Her 16-month-old daughter Miriam who's balanced on her hip, has an extended stomach, but stick-thin legs. The girl's hair has turned a limp blond. Kombi says Miriam's suffering from malnutrition.
BEAUBIEN: I don't believe my daughter will survive for long, Kombi says, because I don't have any money to take her to the hospital or to buy food for her. Kombi gets food money by collecting firewood from nearby forests and selling it in Harare. But with inflation running at more than 1,000 percent, she says the money buys hardly anything.
BEAUBIEN: As it stands, there's no hope, she says. If I could get a proper house again, maybe things would turn around. But at the moment, things in Zimbabwe are only getting worse, she says. There's no hope.
In addition to the misery inflicted on hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans by last years urban cleanup blitz, the nation is entering its eighth year of recession. Zimbabwe's economy has shrunk by 40 percent since the late 1990s. The country used to be the breadbasket of Southern Africa. But after a violent and chaotic land reform program launched in 2000, most of its commercial farms have been destroyed.
The capital is suffering water and power cuts. There are chronic shortages of fuel and foreign currency. Almost a third of the population relies on international food aide to survive. Last week, because of a currency shortage, people stood in long lines outside of banks to try to make withdrawals.
ARNOLD TSUNGA: You have a society that simply needs a trigger, because all the ingredients for an explosion are there.
BEAUBIEN: Arnold Tsunga is with Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. Tsunga says the regime of President Robert Mugabe is becoming increasingly authoritarian. Mugabe, a former rebel leader, came to power in 1980 when Zimbabwe gained independence.
He's been criticized recently by western diplomats and human rights groups for using fraud, violence, and political patronage to keep himself there. Mugabe and some of his closest allies are under international sanctions that prevent them from traveling to or doing business with the U.S. and the European Union.
Tsunga says Mugabe's urban cleanup campaign last year was an attempt to dissipate the disillusioned urban poor. And he says the sporadic government demolitions continue.
TSUNGA: I think what the (unintelligible) trying to do, is to prevent the situation where you can have significant grouping of the poor. We have nothing to lose other than their poverty.
BEAUBIEN: The state-run media in Zimbabwe regularly declares the urban cleanup campaign, which costs hundreds of thousands of people their homes, to have been a huge success.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
SIEGEL: You can see before and after satellite photos of the destruction and a slide show with sound about last year's slum clearance campaign, at our Web site, NPR.org.