Background Briefing

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On May 19th, the government of Zimbabwe launched Operation Murambatsvina (Clear the Filth)1, a program of forcible eviction and demolition of tens of thousands of houses and informal building structures of urban residents in Zimbabwe. With little, or in some  cases, no warning, often with great brutality and in complete contravention of national and international standards, tens of thousands of homes, and thousands of informal business properties as well as legal housing and business structures were destroyed without regard for the rights or welfare of those who were evicted.

The scale of destruction is unprecedented in Zimbabwe. Indeed, there are few, if any precedents of a government so forcibly and brutally displacing so many of its own citizens in peacetime. The victims are mainly the poor and vulnerable in Zimbabwe's cities and towns, many of the households already devastated by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

The United Nations Special Envoy, Anna Tibaijuka, sent by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, reported that the operation was carried out in “an indiscriminate and unjustified manner, with indifference to human suffering and, in repeated cases, with disregard to several provisions of national and international legal frameworks.”2

According to UN estimates, 700,000 people—nearly 6 percent of the total population—have been forcibly evicted from their homes, made homeless or lost their source of livelihood since May 19, 2005 while 2.4 million people—some 18 percent of the population—have been either directly or indirectly affected by Operation Murambatsvina.

The Zimbabwean authorities claim that the destruction of homes and other properties is part of a long-term plan to clean up the urban areas, restore order, rid the cities of criminal elements and restore dignity to the people. There are many alternative analyses of Operation Murambatsvina, several of which allege that the operation was part of the government's efforts to intimidate the urban poor and prevent mass uprisings against the deteriorating political and economic conditions in high density urban areas.

Whatever the true justification for the widespread demolitions and evictions, the government has violated the human rights of hundreds of thousands of its own citizens by arbitrarily forcing them to destroy or cede their property without due notice, process or compensation; by forcibly displacing many of them against their will into the rural areas without any basic services such as health care, education, clean water or means of economic support; by restricting their freedom of movement; and by failing to provide adequate remedies to those whose rights were violated.

The humanitarian consequences of the operation have been catastrophic. Thousands of people—some living with HIV/AIDS—are living in the open without shelter or basic services; many receiving treatment for HIV/AIDS, including children, have lost access to the clinics and centres that were providing them with treatment, with serious repercussions for their long term health. Inevitably, the most affected have been those already vulnerable: children with disabilities; child headed households; widows and people living with HIV/AIDS. And to add insult to injury, the Zimbabwean government, angry with the United Nations in particular at the harsh words of the Special Envoy's report, has refused to co-operate with the UN humanitarian agencies seeking to bring assistance to those who have been evicted and left destitute.

Zimbabwe is already in a profound political economic and human rights crisis—created by a government with a well known record of abusing its own citizens. This latest human rights catastrophe can only push the country closer to total devastation. With acute food shortages looming in the rural areas, the government’s call for a mass return to the rural areas is a recipe for humanitarian disaster.

This report tells the stories of the mass evictions and house demolitions and the continuing suffering of those affected, mostly in the words of victims. Women, children and men recount how they were forced to destroy their own houses, often at gunpoint. They describe how the police in some cases beat them if they did not tear down their own houses and how their homes and sometimes their possessions were destroyed by bulldozers and armed police carrying pickaxes and hammers, or burnt and razed to the ground. They tell how the evictions were carried out with little or no warning and how police gave them almost no time to collect their belongings and leave their homes. And they tell, in often heartbreaking detail, of their destitution and utter vulnerability, in the light of the government’s indifference to their suffering.

Human Rights Watch calls on the government of Zimbabwe to urgently co-operate with the international community and to ensure complete and unrestricted humanitarian access to all those affected. It also calls on the government to respect the right to freedom of movement, and take immediate action to provide legal remedies and necessary compensation including alternative accommodation to those that have been affected by the evictions in compliance with national, regional and international human rights standards. The use of excessive force by the police and other human rights abuses related to the evictions should be immediately investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice.

The international community, especially regional bodies such as the African Union and the Southern Africa Development Community and neighbouring countries must exert far more sustained political pressure on the Zimbabwean government to rein in the government’s excesses and to call for accountability for those responsible for planning and executing Operation Murambatsvina. Given the lack of credibility of the Zimbabwean justice system, only an independent, international inquiry can be trusted to establish the truth and identify the perpetrators.

In June 2005, Human Rights Watch spent two and a half weeks in Harare and Mutare in Zimbabwe, and interviewed ninety-three Zimbabweans including sixty victims and witnesses to the evictions, representatives from nongovernmental organizations and international humanitarian organizations including the United Nations; lawyers, church representatives, local city council officials, human rights activists and monitors, and embassy representatives. Names of victims and witnesses have been changed to protect their identities.

[1] The official government translation for “Operation Murambatsvina” is “Operation Restore Order,” however the word “Murambatsvina” literally means “clear the filth or dirt” in the Shona language.

[2] Report of the UN Special Envoy on Human Settlement Issues in Zimbabwe, Report of the Fact-Finding Missions to Assess the Scope and Impact of Operation Murambatsvina, July 22, 2005.

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