Mugabe attacks churches as UN condemns clearances
Armed riot police and Zanu-PF militants acting on behalf of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe have attacked churches in Harare and the country's second-largest city, Bulawayo, following their action in offering refuge to people driven out of their homes by his policies.
The assaults happened within hours of the publication of a damning United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-HABITAT) report condemning Mr Mugabe's slum clearance programme as 'a catastrophe' that violated international law.
'They stormed the church buildings like soldiers raiding an enemy camp,' according to victim Standford Zulu. 'They threw out our few belongings and told us to go away.'
Reports in the South African media say that churches have been sheltering more than 500 people, many of whom have now been taken away and dumped in rural areas where they are out of reach of food and support. A number of clergy have been arrested.
According to one church organisation, Solidarity Peace Trust (SPT): "This action Ö is taking place at a time when church leaders from South Africa have been calling for closer collaboration between churches in Zimbabwe and South Africa to respond to the enormous humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in Zimbabwe.'
SPT say that the response of the authorities 'points towards a deliberate retribution campaign on the part of the ruling party against church and civil society leaders for offering support and refuge to those displaced by the violent destruction of their property, and for allegedly giving negative reports to the United Nations and the South African Council of Churches."
An Anglican priest told the Johannesburg paper Business Day that 'the memory of a naked 5-year-old child crying in the cold after being rudely awaken from her sleep by the riot police as they forced internally displaced people out of Agape Church in Nketa will always come back to haunt me.'
'I watched the riot police frog-march her family into an open truck', he explained. 'Her mother struggled to load their wardrobe, probably one of the few valuable assets that survived the burning down of her shack in Killarney. Now the same people came back to force them out of the church to the transit camp.'
The UN report was written by Anna Tibaijuka, a special envoy sent to Zimbabwe earlier this month by secretary general Kofi Annan. Ms Tibaijuka met with the government and also directly visited sites of Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Restore Order, or Drive Out Trash) - the Mugabe government's demolition programme against illegal houses and market stalls.
In an especially strongly worded 98-page document, the United Nations says that the situation is far worse than had previously been thought. It has been suggested in the media that up to 250,000 people may have been dispossessed by the Zimbabwean government's actions. The UN cites 2.4 million people affected, of whom 700,000 have lost been made destitute. It is calling for an immediate end to the demolitions, which began on 6 May this year.
Critics say that the Mugabe regime is systematically targeting opposition and seeking to terrorise the population into submission to its autocratic rule, which has been vociferously criticised by church and human rights groups.
The Zimbabwean authorities, who moved swiftly to condemn the UN report as 'propaganda' last night, say that their slum clearances are a prelude to a large scale rebuilding programme, and accuse Britain and other 'imperialists' of inciting subversion.
Leaders of the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe last month condemned Robert Mugabe's "cruel" clampdown on street traders and shanty town dwellers, saying it "cries out for vengeance to God."