(Harare) – The Zimbabwe government has used violence, harassment, and the deliberate restriction of humanitarian aid to coerce an estimated 20,000 flood victims to resettle on tiny land plots where the government plans to establish a sugar cane plantation, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 57-page report, “Homeless, Landless, and Destitute: The Plight of Zimbabwe’s Tokwe-Mukorsi Flood Victims,” documents human rights violations suffered by people forced to suddenly evacuate their homes due to massive flooding in the Tokwe-Mukorsi dam basin in February 2014, which some experts say could have been avoided. The victims were given no choice but to accept one-hectare plots of land on a farm earmarked for growing sugar cane that has close links to the ZANU-PF ruling party of President Robert Mugabe.

“The Zimbabwean government has stopped at nothing to coerce 20,000 flood victims to accept a resettlement package that provides labor for a government project, but leaves the flood victims utterly destitute,” said Dewa Mavhinga, southern Africa senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Zimbabwean government should immediately give the victims adequate aid without conditions and compensate them fairly for their losses.”

Some of the flood victims were already slated for resettlement prior to the emergency, but had resisted moving without receiving fair compensation for their property. The government used violence and intimidation to quell protests, and restricted food distribution and health and education services to those who refused to accept government resettlement plans.

The flood victims oppose the government’s plans. They told Human Rights Watch that the plots are too small to support their families with basic kitchen gardens, that they had been promised five hectares, and that they are being given no choice but to grow sugar cane, which they have no experience cultivating. Many have received no compensation for the loss of their land.

Under the government’s plans, the flood victims are required to grow sugar cane on Nuanetsi Ranch in the Mwenezi district of Masvingo province to contribute to a government-owned ethanol project. They would not be permitted to grow other crops. They said the arrangement would leave them with no livelihood until the scheme was fully operational, expected to be in about seven years.

The provincial affairs minister for Masvingo province, Kudakwashe Bhasikiti, told Human Rights Watch in an August 2014 interview that the flood victims would eventually benefit from the ethanol project and that families growing sugar cane would help the project achieve profitability more quickly than if they were permitted to grow crops of their choosing. In other interviews, Bhasikiti branded those who opposed the government’s plans as “rebels” and “enemies of the state.”  

In the immediate aftermath of the flood, the Zimbabwean army relocated the 20,000 victims – or 3,300 families – to Chingwizi Camp on Nuanetsi Ranch, where they received assistance from the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies. The government then told the flood victims that they should move to their new plots earmarked for sugar cane growing at Bongo and Nyoni, 20 kilometers away.

When the flood victims refused, government authorities began to deny them food assistance, limited their access to water and toilets, and barred or diverted aid donations intended for their assistance. In April 2014, the local government minister, Ignatious Chombo, said publicly that “food assistance will only be given to those families who agree to move to their permanent plots.” Within six months after the camp opened, the government closed it, along with its health clinic and school.

When flood victims protested, and violence broke out, anti-riot police indiscriminately beat and arrested about 300 people, mostly men, witnesses told Human Rights Watch.

Most of those arrested were later released, except one woman and three men, including Mike Mudyanembwa, the chair of the victims’ Chingwizi Camp Committee, who had not been at the demonstration. These four were charged with public violence and sentenced to five years in prison on January 27, 2015; their lawyers said they had been tortured in prison.

In the wake of the protests, many men fled the camp, fearing arrest. The police forced the women, the sick, and the disabled who remained to sit in the sun without access to toilets for two days as punishment, then moved them to the one-hectare plots.

The flood victims have been left destitute at the new plots. They said the last food aid distribution from the World Food Program (WFP) was in September 2014 and that they have to walk up to 20 kilometers for clean drinking water, since the boreholes the government constructed were dry or produced saltwater.

Many still live in tents. The government has directed them not to build permanent structures since the ownership of the land is disputed between the government, the Development Trust Fund of Zimbabwe (DTZ), a company apparently under the control of the presidency, and Nuanetsi Ranch Private Limited and Zimbabwe Bio Energy Limited (ZBE).

“The rights of the flood victims are being treated with total disregard by the Zimbabwean government,” Mavhinga said. “The government claims the new plots are a permanent solution for the flood victims, but the dispute over land tenure shows this is far from the truth.”

The construction of the Tokwe-Mukorsi dam began in 1998 to provide irrigation and electricity to the semi-arid Masvingo province, in southeastern Zimbabwe. Delayed by funding and other problems, it is scheduled for completion at the end of 2015 at an estimated cost of US$298.7 million.

The ill-fated relocation began in February 2014, when heavy rains flooded the dam’s basin. The authorities maintain the floods were a natural disaster resulting from climate change, which resulted in record rainfalls. Dam project workers and an engineer familiar with the dam construction told Human Rights Watch, however, that the floods could have been prevented by letting out water downstream. 

Satellite images of the floods taken between December 2013 and May 2014, and analyzed by Human Rights Watch, strongly suggest that there was no effort to reduce water levels or to minimize the flooding until weeks after the flooding began.  

Despite residents’ pleas to allow water to flow downstream, armed soldiers evicted the residents from their land, including some far from the flood areas. One flood victim said that the soldiers told residents:

President Mugabe directed that this dam should be constructed so that it contains water in it, and you ask us to let the water out? No. It is time for you to leave now. You will receive your compensation later, when [the] government gets the money.

“The circumstances leading to the floods are suspicious and flood victims have a right to know if it could have been avoided, as many lost property in the emergency relocation,” Mavhinga said. “The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission should immediately investigate the circumstances leading to the floods and, if necessary, ensure that those responsible are held to account.”