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Mugabe Sweeps Urban Poor in Zimbabwe

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Aid groups estimate 300,000 of Zimbabwe's urban poor have lost their homes in a new push by President Robert Mugabe. His ruling party says Operation Clear Out the Trash is intended to wipe out illegal ghettos and cut the crime that has grown around them. Opposition groups see the campaign as punishment for those who voted against Mugabe in recent elections. Journalist Haru Mutasa sent this report from Harare.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

HARU MUTASA reporting:

They came without warning: giant bulldozers, devouring everything in their paths: houses, shops, vending stores--what the government in Zimbabwe calls illegal structures or slums.

(Soundbite of crowd)

MUTASA: People are afraid to use their names for fear of victimization, should it get out they spoke to the media. Some are so afraid they choose to speak softly, in case someone hears them.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken, in voice just above a whisper)

MUTASA: He says his vending store in Harare's high-density suburb of Mare(ph) was demolished a few weeks ago. He sold bits and bobs for nearly three years to support his wife and four children. He was moved to Caledonia transit camp with other displaced people. There are no toilets and clean running water.

(Soundbite of crowd)

MUTASA: Here they wait, wait in desperation as they try to understand what their government is doing and if it has, indeed, abandoned them. Some are even considering drastic alternatives.

Unidentified Man #2: ...(Unintelligible) when I quit here. I won't even do the road but I'm ready.

MUTASA: The ruling party, Zanu PF, fearlessly defends its actions.

Mr. KEMBO MOHADI (Zanu PF Home Affairs Minister): True, there is this (unintelligible) that wherever someone lives is--their house is their home. Yes, I would like to buy that one, but with a pinch of salt, because if it is a home, it has got to be a distant home. It is got a home that been ultra (unintelligible) by the authorities that govern that particular place. But if it is just a home where you come and you put your old truck in front of my house and you say it's your home and have come to move it, then that is something else. So that's lawlessness that we would not want to see, and that is exactly what we are doing away with.

MUTASA: That was Kembo Mohadi, Zanu PF home affairs minister.

(Soundbite of distant rooster crowing)

MUTASA: The international community has generally condemned Zimbabwe's cleanup campaign, calling it, among other things, `a gross violation of human rights.' That is why Anna Kagumulo Tibaijuka from the United Nations was dispatched to the country over a week ago.

Ms. ANNA KAGUMULO TIBAIJUKA (United Nations): The issue is not a clean city, but how you clean the city. So I think that here, we are dealing with how, not why. Cleaning of cities cannot be an event. It has to be a process.

MUTASA: Sent by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, she has been given the mammoth task of assisting Operation Restore Order and update Annan on her findings. Only then will action be taken, if the UN feels action needs to be taken at all.

The country's leader, President Robert Mugabe, is unfazed by the UN visited and scolds the West for continuously meddling in his affairs.

President ROBERT MUGABE (Zimbabwe): She is a United Nations director of habitat and belongs to the United Nations and not distribute (unintelligible). Yes, there is discomfort now, but discomfort in order to get comfort later. What is important is what you do when you break up slabs.

MUTASA: Movement for Democratic Change opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has his own opinion on the cleanup campaign.

Mr. MORGAN TSVANGIRAI (Movement for Democratic Change): A trail of destruction every day in these areas resembles a sight in a war zone. Property worth millions of dollars has gone up in flames. Families are out in the open, without jobs, without income, without shelter, without support. Overnight Zimbabwe has been turned into one massive internal refugee center.

(Soundbite of crowd; people talking in foreign language)

MUTASA: There are no exact figures of how many people have been displaced since Operation Restore Order began nearly two months ago, but the handful of humanitarian organizations still in the country estimate numbers to be around 500,000. At the end of the day, people here want and need one thing.

Ms. TIBAIJUKA: What would you want us to do?

Unidentified Woman: We want accommodation...

Unidentified Translator: We want accommodation. We need accommodation.

MUTASA: Haru Mutasa, Zimbabwe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Haru Mutasa