Five years on Murambatsvina victims struggle

FOR some of the poorest people in Zimbabwe important dates often pass unnoticed. July 22 is a critical date for a fifth of Zimbabwe’s population who were affected by Operation Murambatsvina.

On that day, five years ago, the UN released a report chronicling the devastation inflicted on about 2,4 million Zimbabweans during Operation Murambatsvina.

The report spelt out recommendations, which if fully implemented, could have addressed most of the grave problems facing people living in Operation Garikai/Hlalani Kuhle settlements today.

In contrast to government’s publicly stated intention under Operation Garikai — that is to re-house some of those affected by the evictions — the programme has proved woefully inadequate.

Walking around one of Harare’s Garikai settlements today one sees a handful of structures constructed under Operation Garikai against the larger backdrop of plastic shacks. Those allocated these houses would appear to be the lucky ones, but closer inspection reveals their situation is no better — the Garikai houses lack doors, windows, floors, water and sanitation. They are simply uninhabitable.

Operation Garikayi was set up on a premise that the government would provide plots upon which people could build their own homes.  A few vulnerable people would be assisted with housing.

But if Operation Murambatsvina has come to symbolise the shattered lives of some of Zimbabwe’s most vulnerable people, the structures half built under Operation Garikai epitomise the broken promises in the aftermath of the destruction.

Anna Tibaijuka, the UN Special Envoy on Human Settlements Issues in Zimbabwe, who wrote the original report in 2005 said:  “Operation Garikai gives the impression of being hastily put together.  It does not appear to have accounted for the immediate shelter needs of people who have been rendered homeless at the onset of winter.”

In fact, for the victims at Hopley Farm, Hatcliffe Farm, Caledonia Farm and possibly many other places dotted around the country, Operation Garikai created false hope.

In their fifth winter post-Murambatsvina, rather than moving towards a “better life”, residents feel increasingly hopeless, desperate and abandoned. Even the creation of the unity government in February 2009 has not brought any tangible change in their lives.

Amnesty International visited Zimbabwe in May and June 2010 to assess the situation for residents in settlements at Hopley Farm and Hatcliffe Extension, both settlements set up Operation Garikai.

Hopley Farm settlement presents one of the most heart-rending accounts of life in one of Zimbabwe’s post- Murambatsvina settlements. Amnesty International delegates were confronted with disturbingly common reports of newborn deaths.

Women at Hopley live in torn plastic shacks and are forced to give birth at home in unhygienic conditions and without skilled birth attendants.  In some of the worst cases women described the ordeal of giving birth alone — endangering the lives of both mother and child.

The loss of a child is every mother’s worst nightmare, but at Hopley there is an almost fatalistic acceptance: “They swallowed the wind,” they say of their babies’ premature deaths.   Perhaps this explanation is easier to accept than the fact that their babies died because they have been effectively abandoned by a government that is failing in its duty to provide essential services to its most vulnerable citizens.

Opportunities to escape the harsh economic realities at Hopley and other settlements are virtually non-existent. Fetching firewood from neighbouring farms is one of the few options available to women and girls but it is arduous work for meagre rewards.

The long distances involved in reaching the farms are such that it is not unusual to set out at 4am and return at 10pm. Rather than assuring women a small income, they may be arrested and fined for trespassing, returning home even poorer than they started out.  Others endure worse experiences, including rape.

Tibaijuka reported that about 220 000 children of school going age were directly affected by Operation Murambatsvina.  The UN reported that school enrolment may have dropped by about 25%.

This year Amnesty International witnessed community volunteers desperately trying to provide some form of education for their children.  They had no books, stationery, or classrooms.  

At Hopley 300 children of primary school ages were crammed into a tent while those who could not squeeze in sat outside writing in the sand with their fingers.

This is in a country that the UNDP says has the highest literacy level in sub-Saharan Africa.
Despite promises of a “better life” the situation of the victims of Operation Murambatsvina living in the Garikai settlements is infinitely worse than they might have imagined five years ago.

The mass forced evictions were a human tragedy on an epic scale and attracted international condemnation. Five years on the despair and desperation remains for the victims.

Basic essential services are denied and rights are violated daily.  
This cannot be allowed to go on unchallenged.  The unity government should confront this man made disaster and restore the dignity of the survivors of Operation Murambatsvina before the situation gets totally out of control.
lSimeon Mawanza is Amnesty International’s Zimbabwe researcher. He is based in London but visited Zimbabwe in May and June of this year.

By Simeon Mawanza

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