When Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe systematically burned out white farmers and murdered them for their valuable land, the civilized world hardly noticed.
It was about wealth redistribution, said Mugabe. It was about land reform, he said. Those buzzwords were enough for the international community and the slaughter continued.
Now Mugabe has turned his deadly attention to the poor – driving hundreds of thousands from their homes in what he euphemistically calls an “urban renewal” program – or “Operation Drive Out Trash.”
At news conferences in Africa and at the United Nations, more than 200 international human rights and civic groups said the campaign, was “a grave violation of international human rights law and a disturbing affront to human dignity.”
But words don’t mean much to Mugabe.
Since police launched the blitz in Harare May 19, it has been extended throughout the country, causing sporadic rioting as poor residents try to resist the destruction of their homes and livelihoods.
This week, the campaign in a nation facing severe food shortages moved on to the vegetable gardens planted by the poor in vacant lots around Harare. Authorities say the plots threaten the environment.
International rights groups said at least 300,000 people have lost their homes by conservative estimates. The United Nations puts the figure as high as 1.5 million, though Zimbabwe police only acknowledge about 120,000.
More than 42,000 people have also been arrested, fined or had their goods confiscated.
The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, who has been a sharp critic of the evictions, said he is so angered by the campaign he was “ready to stand before a gun and be shot.”
The rights groups urged the African Union, which is meeting in Libya next month, and the United Nations to act against Zimbabwe – but did not specify how.
They also demanded that Zimbabwe compensate the displaced and allow them access to humanitarian workers, who they say are currently being blocked from providing relief.
Several people have been reported killed in the mayhem – including a 2-year-old trapped inside her home when the police came with their bulldozers and leveled the house.
All that is left is the foundations, a pile of rubble and a small dirt grave with a wooden cross and a girl’s name scrawled on the back of a piece of scrap metal.
“The police came. They had been sent to destroy the house,” said Herbert Nyika, Charmaine’s father. “They knocked down the building, the walls; they smashed everything. This was when our child was trapped inside. She died there.”
Her mother, Lavender, said: “I blame the government because it is they who instructed the police to do what they did. It is terrible. I have lost my daughter in such a strange way.”
Every day in Harare, in Bulawayo, in the towns and cities of Zimbabwe, police in riot gear are systematically moving from suburb to suburb forcing people from their homes.
The scale of the clearance is so great there is too much work for the police to do, so they are now forcing the people to destroy their own homes, or charging them a fee for demolition.
The churches are full, their lavatories are overflowing, the people have nowhere else to go. The government moved more than 2,000 people to Caledonia Farm, a resettlement camp outside Harare, with no clean water, sanitation or access to food.
What turned Mugabe against the poor? Some say the reason is political retribution, to punish the urban electorate for voting for the opposition. Others say he is simply a madman – a Stalinesque, power-hungry tyrant who takes pleasure in the misery of others.
The devastation comes at a critical time – mid-winter in Zimbabwe. There was a food shortage in the country before the campaign was launched. And this campaign has even included the destruction of grocery stores and small gardens.
The widespread homelessness, coupled with food shortages and unsanitary conditions are sure to mean slow, agonizing death for hundreds of thousands if not millions. Mugabe’s campaign is just over a month old and shows no signs of abating.
The Reverend Oskar Wermter, former secretary to the Zimbabwe Roman Catholic Bishop’s conference and a parish priest in one of the poorest downtown areas, called the crackdown against these plots “insane and evil.”
“They are sleeping in the open air – tiny children and people dying of AIDS – and people you thought still had some decency are defending this crime against humanity,” said Wermter. “It is a watershed, it is the beginning of the end, but the end will be terrible.”
The main opposition Movement for Democratic Change has accused the 81-year-old Mugabe of imitating Cambodia’s former Pol Pot regime by driving pro-MDC urban voters back to rural areas for “re-education.”
It alleges food access is being used as a weapon of political reprisal following the March 31 parliamentary elections won by Mugabe’s Zanu-PF.
On Sunday, police spokesperson Whisper Bondayi said the demolition campaign was also being extended to wealthier suburbs. He said some residents had illegally converted their homes into offices and workshops.
As yet, however, no demolitions have been reported in such neighborhoods. Wealthy home owners have recourse to judges and lawyers – unlike the poor who rush to salvage what possessions they can before their homes are burned or bulldozed.