Zimbabwean Bishops Decry Government Program Against the Poor

U.N. Official Appoints Special Envoy to Look Into Abuses

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HARARE, Zimbabwe, JUNE 23, 2005 (Zenit.org).- The Catholic bishops’ conference of Zimbabwe published a pastoral letter decrying a government program that has led to the demolition of shantytowns and left innumerable families homeless.

The Holy See’s missionary agency Fides, meanwhile, noted that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Anna Kajumolo Tibaijuka of Tanzania as a special envoy to look into the abuses committed by the forces of order during the «Murambatsvina» (Restore Order) operation.

The Zimbabwean government initiated the program May 19 under the pretext of freeing cities from illegal commerce and urban abuses.

In this context, the police arrested at least 20,000 people. According to the United Nations, about 200,000 have been left homeless as the result of the demolition of shantytowns in the outlying neighborhoods of the country’s principal cities.

In addition to the capital, Harare, the Murambatsvina operation has affected the cities of Bulawayo, Mutare, Chitungqiza, Rusape, Murehwa, Gweru, Masvingo and Kadoma. The homeless now have to cope with the southern winter.

«Groundless»

The Catholic bishops of Zimbabwe, who earlier had already criticized this «cleanup» operation, warned in their latest pastoral letter that, four weeks after its execution, «countless numbers of men, women with babies, children of school age, the old and the sick, continue to sleep in the open air at winter temperatures near to freezing.»

«These people urgently need shelter, food, clothing, [and] medicines,» they said. «Any claim to justify this operation in view of a desired orderly end becomes totally groundless in view of the cruel and inhumane means that have been used. People have a right to shelter and that has been deliberately destroyed in this operation without much warning.»

The prelates added that «alternative accommodation and sources of income should have been identified and provided before the demolitions and stoppage of informal trading. We condemn the gross injustice done to the poor.»

About 80% of Zimbabwe’s more than 11 million inhabitants are unemployed.

President Robert Mugabe’s decision to distribute the land of European farmers to his followers has created chaos in the country’s agricultural system, which was one of the best in Africa, and has destroyed the country’s economic fabric.

Not enough food

By dividing large farming estates into many lots given to different families, the country went from large-scale production to subsistence agriculture which is unable to feed the people, forcing Zimbabwe to depend on foreign aid for its own survival. The situation has led to crises in neighboring countries, whose food needs were supplied by Harare.

While the country sinks progressively into poverty, the government has intensified its policy of control of the population and repression of the opposition.

Although the economic situation is dramatic, the government has increased financial allocations to the armed forces and the central intelligence organization, which recently acquired high-tech material to control and eventually block telephone services and radio and television transmissions within the country and from abroad, reported Fides.

At the end of May, Fides reported that Mugabe’s last campaign was against street traders — people who were convinced by the president himself, with a 1991 law, that they should remain itinerant to foster the advent of private commerce. Mugabe is also aiming at the expulsion of numerous families from the outskirts of Harare, despite an agreement reached in 2002 with the Ministry of Urbanism, Fides added.

Urgent appeal

Fides further reported the opposition’s point of view, which saw in Mugabe’s move the intention to displace most of the poor from the cities to the rural areas, where they can be more easily controlled through the distribution of food, which is in the hands of Mugabe’s supporters.

«Make war on poverty, not on the poor,» exclaimed representatives of Christian churches, in an appeal endorsed by the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Church in the country.

Today, a coalition of more than 200 civic and human rights groups, both African and international, made an urgent joint appeal to the United Nations and to the African Union to help the people of Zimbabwe.

The appeal was coordinated by Amnesty International, the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions, and Zimbabwean Lawyers for Human Rights.

They estimate that more than 300,000 people have been evicted from their homes by the authorities, and appealed to Nigerian President Obasanjo, as president of the African Union, to introduce the crisis in Zimbabwe in the agenda of the next U.N. assembly in Libya on July 4-5.

They also exhorted the U.N. secretary-general to condemn these events publicly and to adopt measures to halt them.

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