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Order out of chaos, or chaos out of order?:
A preliminary report on operation "Murambatsvina"

A report by the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum

June 2005

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Executive Summary

"Operation Murambatsvina" and "Operation Restore Order" are the code names used by the police for a massive operation that began in Zimbabwe towards the end of May. This nationwide campaign, which has been conducted in the cities and towns, in peri-urban areas, and on farms settled after land invasions, has led to the destruction of many thousands of houses and means of shelter, trading stalls and markets. Whatever the reasons behind this, none of which can be morally justified, this campaign has created a huge humanitarian disaster causing enormous hardship and suffering. Within the space of a few weeks, Operation Murambatsvina has produced a massive internal refugee population who are homeless and without the means to earn a living.

By its mismanagement of the economy in pursuit of political ends, the Mugabe Government has created mass unemployment. As formal sector unemployment has risen, more and more people had to move into the informal trading sector to earn some sort of livelihood. Before Operation Murambatsvina, vast numbers of people were earning a living in the informal economic sector. Previously the Government encouraged the growth of the informal sector and allowed informal traders and vendors to carry out their activities. The authorities largely turned a blind eye to vendors and traders operating in violation of by-laws.

Because of drastic housing shortages, hundreds of thousands of people were occupying shanty and makeshift dwellings in urban areas. Many more were occupying houses erected by housing co-operatives on land occupied during the land invasions. Many of these housing co-operatives were registered, and senior government officials had often encouraged the establishment of these informal settlements or had given the approval to their activities. The authorities had previously done little to enforce the building by-laws in relation to these informal settlements.

Suddenly, in a military style operation, often conducted in the early hours of the morning, police officers dressed up in riot kit and armed with automatic firearms, loaded with live ammunition, descended without warning on poor urban people in high-density suburbs, in and around towns and cities, all over Zimbabwe. The army was also deployed in a show of force to deter people from putting up resistance to the police action. The police bulldozed, smashed, and burned structures housing many thousands of poor urban dwellers. Among those whose buildings were destroyed were those who had proper plans for their buildings and those who had entered into valid leases to occupy those premises. The owners of the structures, and even bystanders in numerous instances were also press-ganged into assisting in breaking down these structures. The destruction of structures that housed thousands of people was done without providing any alternate accommodation whatsoever, although after all the destruction, the Government announced plans to build and rebuild housing.

Some estimates put the number of people now displaced at well over a million. The forced displacement of thousands of families has meant that many children of these families are no longer attending school. Amongst those that have been made homeless in the blitz are babies and young children, orphans, women and women-headed households, elderly people, disabled people, people with HIV and other sick people. The dislocation of these people has severely disrupted treatment and care programmes for people with HIV, and these persons will be exceptionally vulnerable as a result. The police also destroyed large numbers of vending stalls and markets and drove away vendors from sites all around the towns from which they had been operating. Quite a number of vendors were unfairly affected as they held valid vending licenses. During these operations the police confiscated quantities of goods. Allegations were made that some of this property was misappropriated by police officers.

This operation was conducted in a brutal fashion. The police beat people who offered resistance to what they were doing, or did not comply quickly enough with orders to remove property from inside their structures or to assist in dismantling these structures. Property worth millions of dollars was destroyed, in many cases this constituting an investment of the life savings of families. During this operation, many people were arrested on a variety of charges.

A number of non-governmental organisations, wishing to assist people thrown out of their homes, have been prevented from doing so.

The wrecking of the informal economic sector will have very detrimental economic effects at a time that the economy is already in a most parlous state. Apart from drastically increasing unemployment, the campaign will have a very detrimental knock-on effect upon the formal economy.

The City Council, various Government Ministers, and Government officials have advanced a whole miscellany of reasons for this operation. In general, the official explanations have been confusing, and occasionally at variance with each other.

The timing and magnitude of the 'clean-up' operation has led to much speculation as to whether there are in actuality other reasons than those officially proclaimed. For instance, some have argued that the campaign is to punish urban people for voting for the opposition. Others say that it is a pre-emptive strike against the urban poor to prevent unrest in the towns by driving people away into the countryside. There are problems with each of these speculations. A more comprehensive theory incorporates most of the fragmentary theories, and posits the campaign as a strategy to solve a related set of political problems for the government.

Some court cases have been brought to challenge the legality of the campaign and more are in the pipeline. In one action, the court dismissed the action on a questionable basis, but the presiding judge did make explicit reference to the adverse humanitarian consequences.

Operation Murambatsvina violates a whole range of international human rights norms as well as fundamental rights provisions in the Constitution of Zimbabwe.

Whatever the reasons for it, Operation Murambatsvina constitutes a widespread and systematic attack on a poor and defenceless civilian population. It has laid to ruins the homes and businesses of hundreds of thousands of people. Not without justification, have people likened the devastation wreaked by the government to that of a tsunami. However, unlike a tsunami, the targets of Operation Murambatsvina have been selective and it is this selectivity which has led to the speculation that the true motives behind it are political.

Accordingly, the Human Rights Forum calls upon the Government to take a number of immediate steps:

  • To bring an immediate halt to all forced evictions until such time as a planned and humane relocation can take place;
  • To end the forced relocation of persons to the rural areas;
  • To allow immediate and unrestricted access by churches and non-governmental organizations to affected persons so that humanitarian assistance may be given to those affected;
  • To allow a full and independent audit of the consequences of the forced evictions;
  • To investigate all allegations of unlawful deprivation of property and to prosecute all alleged offenders.
  • To make full restitution of all property illegally confiscated.
  • To provide full compensation to all persons whose property was illegally damaged or destroyed.

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