July 8, 2005

UN envoy met Zimbabwe president

A United Nations envoy has met with President Robert Mugabe and promised to work with the government to help the tens of thousands displaced in a so-called urban renewal campaign that has prompted an international outcry. Anna Tibaijuka, the Tanzanian head of U.N. Habitat, wrapped up a nearly two-week visit that was aimed at assessing the government's hated Operation Murambatsvina - Drive Out Trash. Tibaijuka's spokesman, Sharad Shankardass, did not release her findings, saying she would first report to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. But he said she would immediately dispatch an officer to help Zimbabwe meet its housing needs.
Humanitarian workers and opposition leaders estimate up to 1.5 million people have lost homes and livelihoods since police began torching and bulldozing shantytowns, informal markets and other structures deemed illegal on May 19. The government defends the operation as an urban cleanup drive. Opposition leaders say it is aimed at breaking up their strongholds among the urban poor and diverting attention from the economic crisis plaguing Zimbabwe.
Tibaijuka and her delegation met with Mugabe after touring the northwestern resort town of Victoria Falls, where some 6.000 huts and stalls were burned down during running battles last month between police and souvenir sellers. "She spoke about the situation in this country and the position of the displaced and said she was going immediately to send an officer here to work with the UN country team on housing needs," Shankardass said. "She announced that she was going to work with the government towards increasing help to displaced people in the country." Mugabe's government has pledged $325 million to provide 1.2 million houses or building plots by 2008. Economists have voiced doubts that the government can afford the massive reconstruction project at a time when inflation has soared to over 144 percent and an estimated 4 million people are in urgent need of food. Since her arrival June 26, Tibaijuka has met with government and opposition officials, church leaders, civic groups and people displaced by the demolitions. She has also toured demolition sites and places where the government is proposing to build new homes. In her meetings, Tibaijuka acknowledged the need to clean up slums, but stressed this needs to be a negotiated process with residents whose homes are being destroyed. "Cleaning of cities cannot be an event, it has to be a process," she said. A human rights commissioner from the African Union was in the country at the same time, but was refused cooperation from the government because he did not obtain prior clearance for the visit, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. The African Union has so far refused to intercede in Zimbabwe, saying it cannot interfere in the internal affairs of member states.
In the meantime, concern has also arisen that the creation of transit camps as a result of the government's evictions could become permanent. According to a homeless people's rights NGO, the government wanted people cleared from illegal settlements to either move directly to their place of birth in the rural areas, or to one of two temporary transit centres outside the capital, Harare, and the eastern city of Mutare. A third facility is yet to be completed in Bulawayo in the south of the country. Ironically, Porta Farm, one of the suburbs targeted by the authorities, had come into existence as a transit camp in 1992 after one of the first eviction campaigns in Harare, just before the Commonwealth Heads of State meeting, said Beth Chitekwe-Biti, director of Dialogue on Shelter, an NGO affiliated to Shack/Slum Dwellers International.
"Evicted families were relocated to a holding camp in Dzivarasekwa, some 10 km south of Harare; the rest were to be repatriated back to their rural homes. The logic then was: if you could not prove you were gainfully employed you had no business being in Harare. This relocation was always meant as a temporary solution - most of the families who had been ferried to their rural homes came back after a few months and re-established themselves in Porta Farm," she explained. Dzivarasekwa was affected by the recent eviction campaign, as was Hatcliffe Extension, another suburb in Harare created for previously evicted communities. According to Chitekwe-Biti, Hatcliffe Extension residents were actually granted leases last year, but because "they were unable to afford services and permanent structures, they were deemed illegal by the authorities, as our housing law states that no land can be allocated to anyone if it has not been connected to services". She estimated that at least 50 percent of all urban residents lived in informal dwellings, and commented, "Squatting is illegal in Zimbabwe. The only form of housing the poor can get without risking eviction and prosecution is to squat in the backyard of formal settlements, where one has access to basic services." (AP/IRIN)

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