Background Briefing

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Human Rights Consequences of Operation Murambatsvina

Human Rights Watch conducted interviews with many people who were affected and displaced as a result of Operation Murambatsvina. They represent a vivid cross-section of the Zimbabwean population in the affected areas. Women, children, persons living with HIV/AIDS and persons of foreign origin were particularly hard hit by the evictions as documented in the accounts below. While the victims who spoke to Human Rights Watch have unique stories, their accounts share a common thread: all cited a similar process of forced, indiscriminate and often violent displacement at the hands of police and consistent orders to move to the rural areas.

In contrast to government claims that people voluntarily destroyed “illegal” houses,91 many of those affected by the evictions informed Human Rights Watch that the police forced them to destroy their own houses often at gun point. One interviewee told Human Rights Watch:


When the police came they were forcing people to demolish their homes or they would beat them up. I saw them beating people up and forcing them to demolish the house. They were beating them up with baton sticks. Some of the police were armed and they were threatening people. At some houses they would sit by the house and wait until it was demolished. They announced on loudspeakers that they would be coming on Sunday so I demolished the house before they came.92

Police also destroyed houses and structures without care for the safety of people or their possessions. A number of people reported that they had to risk their lives trying to retrieve their belongings while police demolished their houses.93 

Human Rights Watch interviewed a number of people who were beaten by the police and others who witnessed the police beating people who refused to destroy their houses or did not do so quickly enough. To date, no investigations into the brutality and excessive use of force of the police have taken place and those responsible brought to justice.

Tapiwa told Human Rights Watch about the brutal methods use by police to evict her from her home, “The police are showing no mercy. They have given us a deadline that we must destroy our houses. They were beating us with baton sticks and their boots if we didn’t destroy our houses quickly enough. It doesn’t matter, women, children, and elderly people. They were all beaten up. What we want to know is why is God doing this to us?”94


Those made most vulnerable by the evictions and demolitions are women and children who continue to have no or minimal access to shelter, food and other basic services. 

Women have increasingly become the sole bread winners in the home, as unemployment has reached unprecedented levels in Zimbabwe.95 A significant proportion of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch were from female headed households, due to the high rate of HIV/AIDS which has left many women widowed and HIV positive.96

Operation Murambatsvina took place in an environment of profound gender discrimination against women in Zimbabwe with respect to property inheritance and ownership, highlighting the failure of the government to adequately legislate for women’s equality in the areas of inheritance and division of family property upon divorce, and in particular the problem of courts bowing to discriminatory customary laws.97

This has been particularly exacerbated by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Reasons for the high proportion of women in the informal settlements include a plethora of abusive and discriminatory practices including property grabbing when their spouses die, discrimination in inheritance, lack of equal property rights upon divorce, difficulties in obtaining credit to purchase property, and discriminatory attitudes of public officials handling issues such as the registration of deeds to property and the approval of land transfers.98

Many of the women evictees Human Rights Watch interviewed were renting out cottages and cabins and selling vegetables as a means of survival. They informed Human Rights Watch that as part of a drive to empower women in the 1990s, the government encouraged widows and divorced women to build and rent out cabins in their back yards as a means of survival.99 As one woman told Human Rights Watch, “The government told us that the power is in our hands, that the land is ours and that we should build where we want to build.”100

Priscilla, a sixty-year-old widow with one daughter and two grandchildren lived in her own cottage with her family. When her house was destroyed during the evictions, she ended up sleeping out in the streets until her family was given refuge in a church:

We were all living together in Mbare in a cottage. I was in Bulawayo for a wedding. I came back on Monday and found people demolishing their cabins and cottages and then I was told that a notice came on Friday telling people to demolish their properties. Riot police were there in their numbers and they were beating people and forcing people to demolish their cottages. Since I was away, I found my nineteen-year-old grandson doing it alone. They were shouting at us to quickly demolish the house. There was no time to look after the property. I am not working but my daughter is working. She is a cleaner. We came to the church. People were sleeping outside under a tree. People were looking for lorries to carry their luggage and belongings. Some managed to find transport and went.

There was havoc because the riot police were going around checking to see if we had demolished the houses. They wanted it razed the ground and told us to get rid of the rubble and were forcing people to burn the wooden planks. We were told to break down bricks into small pieces. Elderly people were forced to demolish the cabins in their backyard. People were sleeping outside including newborn babies.

People were gathering together in groups. The police said they didn’t want people to gather. They told us to disappear back to our rural homes or they would take us to a farm somewhere in Goromonzi. We are staying in the church but we are desperate. The church is not an accommodation. At my age I need my own home. I don’t have a home in the rural areas. Our culture says once you are married you belong to your husband’s family and now he is dead. I would not be welcome in his rural homestead. My daughter is also a widow. Getting accommodation is very difficult.

I tried to apply for a house with the city council in 1970 but never got one. Since then I have been renewing my applications. I had a lodger’s card, and was paying rent every month to prove that I qualified to get a house. Eventually I gave up. Sometimes they needed bribes. There was corruption in the city council.101

Eileen, who was pregnant, described the indignity of almost giving birth in the open to Human Rights Watch:

I gave birth yesterday. We have been sleeping in the open for three weeks. It was terrible because I was heavily pregnant. Then yesterday I got contractions and well wishers quickly put up a wooden shack so that I wouldn’t give birth in the open and that is where I had my child. For now I am sleeping with the newborn in this shack while my husband and two other children sleep outside. We don’t know what to do.102

Human Rights Watch also interviewed a number of women who had children with disabilities. They were reluctant to go to the rural areas where their children were unlikely to receive adequate medical treatment. Justina told Human Rights Watch:

My husband abandoned me when my son was born. He was born with Downs syndrome. I used to stay in a cabin and it was demolished and now I sleep outside in the streets with my kids. This is our second week of sleeping in the open. I used to be a vendor (informal trader) but I can’t work anymore. I can’t go back to the rural areas because both my parents are dead. I can’t think anymore.103

Sheila, a mother of two children, lived with her unemployed husband in a one room cottage in Highfield group. Her twelve-year-old daughter was born with cerebral palsy. Sheila owned a flea market stall and was able to feed her family. Her daughter attended the Ruvimbo School for the Disabled every day. She recounted her story:

The house I am staying in has been demolished. It happened last week on June 8. Support unit police and soldiers and people from the city council came to demolish the house. They came and told us that it was illegal and started to demolish the house with hammers. I arrived in Highfield in 1993. I was just lodging with my husband. The land lord had papers for the house.

They didn’t even inform us that they were coming. We were not given any warnings; we just heard that in Mbare they were coming to demolish the house. When they started demolishing I immediately took my property and threw it outside. We have been sleeping outside for a week at Highfield with our property. We are sleeping outside me and my children including my disabled child and now she is having fits. The government has not provided us with any food, shelter or medicine. They want us to move. We have no village or anywhere to stay in the rural areas. My husband is from Masvingo but I have had problems with my in-laws because they don’t like my disabled child. My disabled child was at a disabled school and there is no school in the rural areas. We also have no money to build anything in the rural areas.

My child now has no access to physiotherapy or the hospital because we have no money for transport to take her there. We have received no help whatsoever even from local and other NGOs. I have no lawyers or anyone helping me. I am desperate. I am worried about my children. We haven’t been able to talk to anyone from the government.

My flea market was demolished and I don’t have anything to do and I am so worried about how I am going to survive. In Highfield we are six mothers with disabled children who are now homeless. The number will increase because they will still demolish the other houses. I don’t know what I am going to do next. I am so desperate.104

Anita, a twenty-year-old widow had four children including twins. One of the twins had a disability and spent most of her time in and out of hospital. She was able to survive by selling fruits and vegetables. On the day the evictions took place she was in the hospital with the twins. She said:

The doctor discharged me because the child’s condition didn’t change. When I reached home, I discovered the house pulled down. My belongings were looted and I had nothing to do. So I have to stay out in the open with the kids. At first, I gave my two other children to their grandmother who lives on a near by farm but then she had to work and the children weren’t allowed on the farm where she is working.

My four children and I are now sleeping outside. I was living in a shack which belonged to my in-laws. My in-laws were allocated a stand during the 2002 elections. We weren’t given any notice. They (the local authorities) told us it was an operation and that they didn’t want any illegal structures.

One of my children is still going to school but now has to move very far. What worries me is where will he go and I have to transfer him. It pains me because the school he went to offered high quality education. We have now been sleeping outside for about two weeks. I am planning to go and stay with my step sister if things get worse. I am able to get help from a local NGO food point. Other NGOs are not allowed to give us help because they (the government) say we should go to the rural areas.105


Children have also been affected by the demolitions and evictions. UN agencies concluded that a significant percentage of children throughout the country had been “prejudiced of humanitarian support, shelter and support systems.”106  The UN report on the impact of the evictions estimated that up to 223,000 children were directly affected by the operation.107 The Child Protection Working Group consisting of local and international organizations working with children, also expressed concern that a number of children, who became separated from their families during the evictions, were being held in institutions, including those normally used to hold children in conflict with the law.108 Child headed households in the high density urban areas were also affected by the evictions. 

Mable sixteen:

I was living in Tafara with my six younger brother and sisters. Our parents died in 2002. We were renting a cabin and it was demolished and now we are living on a farm. We have built a temporary structure there. It is made of plastic sheeting and some cardboard. Before we used to survive by selling freezes (ice lollies) and vegetables but now we are just living without anything to do. We are now eating food we were given by well wishers sometime ago. No one has visited the farm to help us. It’s now been a week since we were evicted.109

Despite the difficulties in school enrolment due to families relocating in the aftermath of the evictions, a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)-led UN assessment of the impact of the evictions found that 90 percent of children affected by Operation Murambatsvina remained in school.110 However, Human Rights Watch interviewed a number of victims who were unable to keep their children in school.

Beatrice, a mother of three children from Rugare, is now unable to pay for her children to attend school:

Last Saturday the police came and told us to destroy the cabin I was renting out. I was a landlady and my livelihood was destroyed. I have a boy in Form Four and another in Form Three while another is in Grade Six. Now I can’t afford to send my children to school because I can’t afford the transport. My husband died a long time ago and I was renting out the cabin for ten years. I was getting 350,000 Zimbabwe dollars per month for rent plus water and now I have lost it.111

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that those children who went to the rural areas with their parents found enrollment into new schools difficult without a transfer letter from their previous school. The nature of the evictions, carried out with little or no notice meant that few parents were able to secure transfer letters for their children. A number of schools and crèches were also reportedly destroyed during the evictions in and around Harare.112

People living with HIV/AIDS

Almost 25 percent of the adult population aged 15-49 in Zimbabwe—a total of around 1.6 million people—are affected by HIV.113 The high rate of HIV infections in the urban areas has resulted in the formation of HIV/AIDS centers that provide home based care to those living with HIV/AIDS, and counseling and medication. HIV prevalence rates have in the last ten years alone reduced life expectancy from sixty-two to about thirty-eight and a half years.114 The evictions led to the disruption of scores of HIV/AIDS home based care and treatment programs around the country. In carrying out the evictions, the government failed to provide for the care of chronically ill persons including those living with HIV/AIDS many of who were sleeping in the open or had moved to the rural areas.

One HIV/AIDS home based care centre official informed Human Rights Watch that fifteen out of twenty of its home based care volunteers, all of whom were HIV positive, were evicted and rendered homeless in Harare.115 None of the center’s twenty-seven child clients on free anti-retroviral drugs, turned up to receive new supplies of anti-retroviral drugs since the eviction program started.

Matthew, a home based care volunteer informed Human Rights Watch that five of his clients had died in the open in Mutare after being evicted from their homes:

We have been providing counseling and home based care to our clients and throughout these suburbs since last year. The evictions have hit us hard. Almost all twenty of the clients in this suburb were affected and their houses demolished. It’s a terrible tragedy.

Out of my twenty clients, five have already died while sleeping out in the open. If you look just across (pointing to a pile of furniture with a plastic sheet on top), underneath there’s a very sick woman in there. Just this morning we attended the funeral of one woman who died leaving behind a five-year-old child. They were sleeping in the open. These conditions are not good for already sick people and as you can see today it has been raining. We don’t have the statistics of all those that have been affected and where they might have gone and that is why we are trying to collect data so that we can follow up on them. The Ministry of Health hasn’t even been in touch or the local council. They are just not interested.116

According to local NGO health personnel in Harare, the disruption of treatment programs is likely to lead to resistance to anti-retroviral drugs and an increase in opportunistic infections. One local NGO health official told Human Rights Watch:

Hundreds of people are now going to die because they will develop resistance because they can’t get access to the drugs. People who are on the six combined anti-retroviral drugs one of which is Nevirapine will develop resistance because it has a long shelf life in the body. Those who are borderline stage 3 and 4 are going to become terminally ill. Those who were in recovery are going to regress. A lot of new born babies and small babies are going to die.

The effect of stress on people living with HIV is unchronicled but it is there. When you add malnutrition and the cold it is terrible. When you treat people with HIV you are constantly treading a fine line to ensure they don’t regress and this has pushed us over the line. For every person we don’t treat here, it affects another ten.117

Women and children are disproportionately affected by HIV.118 Chipo was confirmed HIV positive in 1996. She told Human Rights Watch:

We found out about our (HIV) status when my child was three months old. My husband died in 1998 and my child and I were very ill but then I became a member of a centre which looks after HIV positive people. My son and I have been on ARVs and we were both doing fine. We received counseling, spiritual and psychological as well as nutritional help. But now I am under stress.

Three weeks ago the police came and told us to destroy our houses. They had guns and we had no choice. We destroyed them. My son and I have been sleeping outside with our furniture for the past two weeks.  I used to sell vegetables to survive but now I can’t anymore. I rely on an organization that looks after widows for food. It’s very difficult. My son and I are still able to get treatment but I don’t know what will happen if the police come back. They have said they will come back to make sure that we have all left for the rural areas. I am very worried. My mind is not at ease. And my son and I, what will we do if we go to the rural areas? I don’t know if we will be able to get treatment. My mind is not at peace. I don’t know.119

A UN agency assessment report on June 20 stated: “The hardships and high mobility triggered by the operation have seen patients either receiving less attention and care or being abandoned all together.” It went on to observe that quality and holistic care was in jeopardy and that prevention activities had been discontinued including ARV distribution due to the evictions.120 This was echoed by Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) who in a press statement stated that the mass forced evictions and demolitions would result in “the exacerbation of the HIV/AIDS epidemic as community structures are fractured and dispersed.”121

Persons of foreign origin

The status of people of foreign origin—mostly from neighboring countries—is also in limbo, following Operation Murambatsvina. Interviewees told Human Rights Watch that police repeatedly told them to go back to their countries even though most were born and raised in Zimbabwe or have lived legally in Zimbabwe for many years.122 Such persons are now also without protection, no rural villages to return to and no access to a remedy.

Blessing, married with three children, thirty-eight:

I have no where to go because I am originally from Mozambique. I came here in 1983. My wife is Zimbabwean from Seke but she has no home there. The police told us to go back where we came from.

The police came without notice and told us to demolish our house on June 4. We slept outside for sixteen days and then we started sleeping in the church office. The police came with guns and told me to destroy the house. My wife was at work. I have been living in Mbare since 1996. I was a lodger living in a two room cabin. My wife works in an orphanage.

People who were refusing to demolish their houses were being beaten by the police. I never went to the city council because there was a long waiting list and I don’t have a plan at the moment to find a house because I don’t have the money.

Right now I am sick and I have malaria. We are sleeping on the floor of the church office. My youngest has a big sore on the back of his head and we went to the hospital where we were given a prescription but we can’t afford the drugs. I can’t go back to Mozambique because there is no one there. My wife can’t speak the language so how will she work? I don’t know what we will do.123

Elube of Malawian parentage described her family’s predicament to Human Rights Watch:

The police came three weeks ago and told us to destroy our house and go back to the rural areas but we are of Malawian origin and we can’t go back. We were paying 600,000 Zimbabwe dollars for one room. For three weeks my husband, two children and I have been sleeping out in the open and yesterday it rained. Our property is now wet. My husband had a barbershop and I had a salon and the police destroyed them. Now we have nothing. I lived in Old Tafara for four years and was born and brought up in Zimbabwe, but the police were saying we want you to go to Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique; we don’t want you to stay here. Now we are no where.124

[91] Ibid.

[92] Human Rights Watch interview, Harare, June 29, 2005.

[93] Human Rights Watch interview, Harare, June 29, 2005.

[94] Human Rights Watch interview, Porta Farm, June 30, 2005.

[95] For more on unemployment in Zimbabwe see Dashwood, H S. “Zimbabwe: The Political Economy of Transformation, 2000; see also African Development Bank, “Gender, Poverty and Environmental Indicators on African Countries,” 2005.

[96] Human Rights Watch interviews with local NGOs working with HIV positive women and widows, June 2005; see also policy document on gender by the Gender Department in the Ministry of Youth Development, Gender and Employment Creation, Zimbabwe 2001.

[97] Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions: “Bringing Equality Home: Promoting and Protecting the Inheritance Rights of Women,” Geneva, Switzerland. Also available at See also Mildred T. Mushunje, “Women’s land rights in Zimbabwe,” (2001); AS Tsanga and V Nkiwane, “A critical analysis of women and children’s constitutional and legal rights in Zimbabwe in relation to the women and children’s conventions,”  August 2001.

[98] Ibid. Human Rights Watch interviews with women and women’s organizations, Harare, June and July 2005.

[99] Human Rights Watch interviews, Harare, June 2005.

[100] Human Rights Watch interview, Harare, June 25, 2005.

[101] Human Rights Watch interview, Harare, June 29, 2005.

[102] Human Rights Watch interview, Mutare, June 24, 2005.

[103] Human Rights Watch interview, Harare, June 22, 2005.

[104] Human Rights Watch interview, Harare, June 22, 2005.

[105] Human Rights Watch interview, Harare, June 22, 2005.

[106] Special Bulletin “Operation Restore Order and Murambatsvina,” Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator/ Humanitarian Supports Team, June 20  2005; See also UNICEF press statement “UNICEF steps up action in Zimbabwe, though concerned that all affected cannot be reached,” June 24, 2005.

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

[108] Submission to the United Nations Special Envoy, “Concerns about the impact of “Operation Clean-up” on children,” June 27, 2005.

[109] Human Rights Watch interview, Harare, June 25, 2005.

[110] UNICEF press release, “Against odds, Zimbabweans keep their children in school,” August 23, www.

[111] Human Rights Watch interview, Harare, June 25, 2005.

[112] Human Rights Watch interviews with victims, lawyers and local MPs, Harare, June 2005.

[113] UNAIDS: (accessed August 31, 2005).

[114] World Development Indicators database, April 2005.

[115] Human Rights Watch interview, Director of Home based care Centre, Harare, July 1, 2005.

[116] Human Rights Watch interview, Mutare, June 24, 2005.

[117] Human Rights Watch interview, Harare, July 1, 2005.

[118] Human Rights Watch. Policy Paralysis, December 2003.

[119] Human Rights Watch interview, Harare, June 25, 2005.

[120] Special Bulletin ‘Operation Restore Order and Murambatsvina,’ Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator/ Humanitarian Supports Team, June 20, 2005.

[121] SW Radio Africa, “Evictions disrupt HIV/AIDS treatment programmes,” July 6, 2005.

[122] Human Rights Watch interviews with victims in Harare and Mutare, June 16-July 3, 2005. In 2001 the government introduced the Citizenship Amendment Act to prohibit dual citizenship. Under the act those Zimbabwean citizens in possession of foreign passports who did not formally renounce their foreign citizenship within a stipulated period of time were classified as aliens or foreigners. In 2003 the Citizenship of Zimbabwe Act [Chapter 4:01] was amended again to allow people who were born in Zimbabwe, but whose parents came to the country as migrant workers from a SADC country, to confirm their citizenship of Zimbabwe by signing a special form renouncing their foreign citizenship. However, the amendment was published after most of the people concerned had already lost their Zimbabwean citizenship, and were therefore unable to confirm their Zimbabwe citizenship.

[123] Human Rights Watch interview, Harare, June 29, 2005.

[124] Human Rights Watch interview, Harare, June 25, 2005.

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