Thousands of Harare residents are still fleeing the capital after armed police continued demolishing illegal dwellings and stalls belonging to informal traders on Monday.
Clouds of tear gas mixed with smoke from burning shacks in Mbare, Harare's oldest township, as men, women and children watched their flimsy homes go up in flames. Some risked the fires to save what belongings they could, while others, overcome by emotion, simply stood and cried.
The Mbare residents initially retaliated by setting a shop belonging to a government minister alight, but the combined effects of teargas, a large number of troops patrolling the area and the threat of live ammunition were enough to calm tempers.
As trucks and other vehicles loaded with pocessions streamed out of the city heading for rural areas, thousands of people made their way to the Mbare Musika Bus Terminus, in the south of Harare.
But Zimbabwe's crippling fuel shortages ensured that not a single bus was available. Most of the buses were in queues, awaiting fuel deliveries at petrol stations, and the bus terminus began to resemble a refugee camp as more and more families arrived.
Wellington Murerwa, who had lived in Mbare for most of his life, told IRIN his spirit had been broken. "I have lost the only source of income that I had after my vegetable stall was destroyed. Since 1981 the only place that I have known as a home together with my family was [an illegal] backyard shack, and I cannot start all over again," he said as he broke down in tears.
Manjengwa Tawanda, who has a wife and four children, told IRIN that his grandparents had come from Malawi and he had no rural home in Zimbabwe. "I now leave everything to fate. I have nowhere to go. I have no money to rent the expensive houses."
A housing shortage mixed with grinding poverty has led to the common practice of home owners renting out overcrowded illegal shacks, built literally in their backyards, to families scrabbling to make a living in the city.
Around 20,000 people have been arrested in an operation that initially started as an attempt to rid Harare of illegal foreign currency dealers and informal traders, but then expanded to target illegal street vendors, whose wares were confiscated.
Subsequently the campaign moved into working class areas in urban centres, where illegal structures were demolished. Informal settlements, which had mushroomed around Harare as the country's economic crisis worsened, were not spared either.
The Zimbabwe National Pastors Conference condemned the crackdown in a statement and urged the government to make war on poverty, not the poor.
"Our members, who are doing pastoral work in areas targeted by this operation, have reported that the action of the police was very provocative, offensive and unsympathetic to the feelings of the people. The police were heard singing songs like 'the destroyers have arrived' while they were randomly destroying sources of livelihood for the urban poor," the pastors said.
"This display of a lack of compassion in the face of human suffering and misery gives us every reason to intervene as a pastoral obligation, both to the police and the victims of this operation," they added.
Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) also criticised the operation. The organisation said there was a strong case for affected people to sue the state, and promised to help those who came forward for assistance.
Morgan Tsvangirai, president of the main opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), toured the affected areas and told IRIN that the destruction "defies all logic". He said the operation appeared to be politically motivated because it targeted urban centres, the main support base of the MDC.
National commissar of the ruling ZANU-PF party, Elliot Manyika, said there was nothing political about the crackdown and police would continue to target slum dwellings, regardless of whether those affected were members of his party.
"This is a national operation to restore order - police do not ask whether one supports ZANU-PF, or any party at all. There are bylaws governing trading in every local authority, and the state has the mandate to intervene and restore order where laws are being flouted," said Manyika.
President Robert Mugabe has praised the police crackdown, saying it would restore the beauty of the capital. He promised compensation for those who lost their goods during the operation.
Although the state insists that the purpose of the campaign was to restore order in towns and cities, Daniel Molokela, a political analyst based in Johannesburg, South Africa, told IRIN the operation was calculated to create an atmosphere of fear ahead of new food price hikes.
Price rises of between 29 percent and 51 percent were announced on Friday. "The government has not forgotten that the worst riots in 1998 were over food price increases," Molokela said.
Basic food prices rocketed last week and the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe said the cost of a monthly basic needs basket for a family of six had gone from Zim $2.3 million ($268) in April to Zim $4 million (US $467) at the end of May - well beyond the minimum wage.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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