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(Johannesburg) – Anti-riot police on August 3, 2014, beat and arrested hundreds of people at a camp housing approximately 20,000 displaced people in southern Zimbabwe. A humanitarian crisis is developing as thousands fled in fear and may be living in the open without access to food or health facilities.

The government has been trying to get residents of the Chingwizi camp, on a ranch called Nuanetsi in Mwenezi district, Masvingo province, to move to a new location. Protests started on August 1, 2014, after the government closed the camp’s only health clinic. About 30 police officers stationed at the camp attempted to quell the protests and violence broke out. Two police vehicles were burned.

“The government’s actions in supressing the protests through excessive force and removing the clinic could trigger a deeper humanitarian crisis,” said Tiseke Kasambala, southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

Witnesses at the camp told Human Rights Watch that two days after the protests, over 200 armed anti-riot police arrived at the camp and indiscriminately beat up and arrested close to 300 people. Most were later released, except for 29 who were charged with public violence. On August 8, a magistrate granted bail to 25, but kept the remaining four in custody pending trial.

Lawyers representing those arrested alleged that the people arrested were assaulted and tortured by the police during the arrests and in custody. Those arrested include the chairperson of the Chingwizi camp committee, Mike Mudyanembwa.

Groups working at the camp estimate that possibly as many as half of the people living in the camp, most of them men, have left the camp and are in hiding, without access to food or aid. A 65-year-old man hiding in the mountains told Human Rights Watch that he had been separated from his wife and children as they fled police violence. He did not know where they were and said he was afraid to return to the camp.

The people living in the camp were displaced from their homes when a dam flooded their homes in February some 150 kilometers away. Residents of the camp told Human Rights Watch that the government closed the clinic in an apparent attempt to coerce the displaced people to move yet again to another settlement, Bongo, 20 kilometers away from Chingwizi. On August 4, government officials relocated the camp clinic to Bongo in what seems to be an effort to pressure residents to move.

Many people have refused to move because they have been told by officials they would receive only one-hectare tracts of land instead of the five hectares they had been promised. In addition, the land is privately owned, which precludes land tenure rights for them, thereby making them tenants instead of land owners.

They have also said that they have been told they would only be permitted to grow sugar cane, as opposed to crops that could feed their families. The displaced villagers are demanding fair and just compensation before relocation.

The government should ensure that the displaced people are not denied their rights under international law and Zimbabwe’s constitution, including the rights to health, shelter, food, and the prohibition of torture, Human Rights Watch said. The African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa, which Zimbabwe ratified, requires in article 9(2)(b) that states parties ensure that all displaced people have safe access to “food, water, shelter, medical care and other health services, sanitation, education, and any other necessary social services”.

“The government should urgently restore health facilities at the camp, direct police to end their violence, and assure those in hiding that they can return to the camp safely,” Kasambala said. “The protests at the camp should not become an excuse for the government to shut down the camp without plans to protect the displaced.”

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