Driven out by Zimbabwe government, squatters drift back to cities they left


KILLARNEY, Zimbabwe -- Six months after the government tore down her house, Sifelani Lunga lies sweating in a dirt-floored shack on the same desolate stretch of mud. Just coming back has made her a fugitive.

Like thousands of people dumped in rural areas after the government razed squatter shacks and street stalls, she crept back to the remains of this settlement outside Zimbabwe's second-largest city, Bulawayo, because she could not survive in the countryside.

As the Zimbabwe government and United Nations argue about providing shelter for the people who have been thrown out of their homes, thousands like Lunga have no secure refuge and live in fear of police raids.

The United Nations' top humanitarian affairs official, Jan Egeland, tried to persuade President Robert Mugabe this month to accept tents for those left homeless after the government implemented "Operation Murambatsvina," a Shona phrase meaning "clean out the filth."

The demolitions, which began in late May, destroyed the homes of 700,000 people and affected a total of 2.4 million people, according to a highly critical U.N. report.

"The humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe is extremely serious, and it is deteriorating," Egeland told journalists after his visit this month, describing the evictions as "one of the worst things at the worst possible moment in Zimbabwe."

But Mugabe told Egeland, "We are not a tents people. ... We believe in houses," reported presidential spokesman George Charamba, who was quoted in the state-owned Herald newspaper.

The government has agreed, however, to accept food aid for 3 million hungry people, almost a quarter of the country's population.

Zimbabwe announced a huge housing construction plan after Operation Murambatsvina, but by this month only a few hundred houses had been built and the program had ground to a halt. Human Rights Watch said the program was unaffordable to the vast majority of displaced people because it required proof of regular salary and payment of a deposit.

After riot police and bulldozers destroyed houses in Killarney, thousands of displaced people found shelter in the city's churches until police evicted them again. They were sent to the countryside in what critics call a campaign to dismantle the opposition's urban support.

When Lunga, a 43-year-old widow with HIV, arrived in the village she had been exiled to, she found no food and no clinic. She struggled back to the ruins of Killarney, along with hundreds of others, but she has no money for transport to Bulawayo clinics or churches where food is handed out, and she is too ill to make the walk of nearly two hours.

The Rev. Albert Chatindo, pastor of the Christian Faith Fellowship Church, is coordinating efforts to trace those evicted and to feed the hungry, but he said the churches did not have enough food or vehicles to feed those sent into the country.

"I see the government has no love for the people. Since they moved them and dumped them, they never followed up," he said. Chatindo said the demolitions dismantled delicate social networks of support: Most people had no family or friends in the rural areas they were sent to. Some had been rejected by local chiefs.

"People are not accepting them. They are accused of being the opposition Movement for Democratic Change," he said referring to the only significant opposition party, now bitterly split. "People say to us, `Why are you giving food and shelter to these people? They are not your children.'"

In Bulawayo, churches are not allowed distribute food to the returning squatters.

"We can't take the food out there because if we do, we're confronting the government structures. They must come and collect it," he said. "But we have defied the rules. I often take porridge or mealie [corn] meal to the sick people. You have to save lives."

There is a furtive and frightened atmosphere amid the scattered makeshift huts that several hundred people have hastily thrown up in Killarney and at the Ingozi mine outside Bulawayo.

"When the police come, they'll definitely destroy these shacks," said one returnee, Jutias Muleya, 37. "We are not really safe here."

Chatindo said the number returning grows daily: "People are flocking back here. They could not make it where they were."

One who came back, Bernard Ncube, 52, has been unemployed for 10 years. He used to scrape out a living panning gold near Killarney to feed his four children, but since the evictions there has been no way to make money.

He was sent to Mbembesi village, about 50 miles from Bulawayo, and stayed three months, but he had no relatives or friends there and no work.

"It is far away. There was no way to live there. I came back here to find money to buy food," he said, but he relies on Bulawayo churches for food.

"If I could find a job ... " he trailed off. "But by now I can't get a job. I can't do anything."

Another returned squatter in Killarney, Jealous Moyo, 46, was sent with his wife and five children to stay with his younger sister in a village 125 miles away.

But his sister has eight children of her own, and within a few days it was obvious her husband could not feed everyone.

"I saw the food was too little," he said. "I didn't tell them the truth, that we could see they couldn't afford to feed us."

Recalling his old house, bulldozed to dust, he was wistful. It was brick, with a good snug roof and three small rooms, the kind of home he fears his family will never have again.

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