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Death toll mounts for Zimbabwe's Operation Murambatsvina victims

If anyone thought for a moment that the suffering caused by Operation Murambatsvina ("Sweep away the filth") was over, or had abated, they would be seriously mistaken. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Six months on from the initial brutal assault which saw 700,000 people in cities across the country losing either their homes, their sources of income or both and a further 2.4 million affected in varying degrees, the misery of the victims continues. Indeed for many it has only intensified in the ensuing months. And the death toll among the internally displaced persons (IDPs) increases week by week.

In her report on this vicious programme the United Nations Special Envoy, Mrs Anna Tibaijuka, noted in July that "the humanitarian consequences … are enormous. It will take several years before the people and society as a whole can recover". Mrs Tibaijuka further commented that there was "an immediate need for the Government of Zimbabwe to recognise the virtual state of emergency that has resulted, and to allow unhindered access by the international and humanitarian community to assist those that have been affected." She referred specifically to the priority needs of providing shelter and non-food items, food and health support services.

Although it is almost beyond belief the fact is that the government of Robert Mugabe has neither recognised the "virtual state of emergency" resulting from this catastrophic programme, nor allowed unhindered access to those international and humanitarian agencies able and willing to help. On the contrary it has continued, and intensified, its propaganda of denial and deceit, while at the same time obstructing genuine offers of much-needed assistance. When the UN proposed an international relief appeal to assist the homeless victims with temporary shelter, Mugabe's ministers refused to cooperate. The UN's "common response plan" for US$ 30 million was eventually launched in September without the signature of Zimbabwe. Only belatedly and under extreme pressure has the regime modified its stance, permitting the world body to provide humanitarian assistance to some of its suffering citizens, on terms yet to be made public. Where church and civic groups have responded to the ongoing crisis with genuine and generous relief measures for even a few hundred of the hundreds of thousands of IDPs, with few exceptions they have been met with suspicion, hostility and outright opposition by agents of the regime.

But the statistics alone, as horrifying as they are, hardly convey the trauma, pain and wretchedness of the victims. To put a name or a face to even a handful of the victims somehow brings home the intensity of the suffering in a way any number of statistics cannot do.

Like Patrick Ncube, a young married man with two children. Until June 11 the family had been living at Killarney, eking out a precarious existence but with some dignity and cheerfulness. On that day however the family's meagre home at Killarney was razed by Mugabe's "black boots" - the so-called riot police who swept through the area (illegally) destroying every structure in their path. The Christian community in Bulawayo responded magnificently, ferrying as many as possible of the traumatized victims to a place of sanctuary in one or another of the city's churches. Patrick's family was accommodated in the Agape Church in Bulawayo's Nketa township.

There they enjoyed what were for them the unprecedented luxuries of warmth, shelter, regular food, medical attention and a degree of security - until July 21. At close to midnight on that day - a day which will forever be remembered as a day of infamy for Robert Mugabe's despicable regime - truck-loads of riot police invaded not only Agape Church but about a dozen others across the city. Those sheltering in the churches, including the frail elderly and some tiny babies, were rudely awakened from their sleep and roughly man-handled onto the waiting trucks by Mugabe's gun-toting, baton-wielding storm troops. From there they were taken, in the cold of the winter's night, to the temporary holding camp at Helensvale, some 20 kilometres north of the city. Their stay in Helensvale was very short, just a matter of days in fact, because the UN Envoy's report, of which the regime had seen an advance copy, was about to be published and, fearing the international fall-out, the regime was determined to "sweep the filth" right out of view just as quickly as ever it could.

For this reason Patrick and his family found themselves taken, without consultation, and unceremoniously dumped, without food, water, blankets or prospect of shelter at Spring Farm to the east of Bulawayo. There the family was left to the mercy of the elements - the mercy also of the local impoverished community which was none too pleased to welcome them, with others, to share their few meagre resources. Eventually through the tenacity and courage of a small team of volunteers, the churches in Bulawayo re-established contact with the family and brought them food and blankets and negotiated with the local community leaders to afford them a place to stay for the time being - though not yet a place of shelter.

For Patrick, whose whole life had been a continuous struggle against dehumanizing poverty, it was just too much. To a caring pastor who had shown a remarkable degree of compassion for the family in their wretched plight, he confessed that he felt a sense of guilt and failure. He had failed to provide for his wife and children as a good husband and father should. Nor was there any prospect that the situation might improve. The family was now immeasurably worse off than when they lived in their own fragile structure at Killarney. And the local people who had been forced to find a space for the little family clearly did not want them to stay. They had no ties of family or clan. They simply did not belong. "I have nowhere to go", confided Patrick. "No one wants us. The government wants us out of the way - dead." And whether of the severe malnutrition that had been reducing his immunity system dangerously, or out of utter despair, Patrick Ncube obliged. He died within a few weeks - aged 39.

Or again one could cite the case of Mavis Mkandla, her husband Luke and baby daughter, Flora. Another small family living successfully, against all the odds, at Killarney - until the riot police arrived on June 11 and razed their flimsy dwelling to the ground. This family also benefited from the compassionate hospitality of one of the Bulawayo churches until the riot police invaded the premises on that dark night of July 21. For the Mkandla family also, as for the Ncubes, a brief stay at the Helensvale centre followed, and then they were moved on again, in the winter cold. In the Mkandla's case they were dumped in the Nyathi area some 40 kilometres north-east of the city.

Mavis and Luke had no previous connection with Nyathi. So they found themselves, homeless and destitute, among complete strangers. Moreover the local headman and chief were unsympathetic to their plight. No doubt it was difficult enough for them to find support for the existing families who had a claim of residence or affinity, without taking on additional mouths to feed. So the traditional leaders informed Mavis and Luke that they would need to live in the area for at least five years before their plea for help could be considered. In the meantime they must leave! A Catch-22 situation which effectively meant the family could never establish itself in the area where they had been dumped by the police.

What other option did they have? Mavis and Luke walked back into Bulawayo with baby Flora, and to the only place they knew where they might take refuge for a short while - Killarney. Their old home had been reduced to charred ashes now, but they "camped" secretly in the bush nearby, making sure to keep well out of sight during daylight hours in case the riot police should make a sweep through the area, as they tended to do from time to time.

Until the forced removal from Killarney in June Mavis had been in reasonable health. She had no medical history to cause any concern. But now back in Killarney after the trauma and incredible hardships of the last five months, she began to complain of stomach pains. When the pain continued her pastor took her to the United Bulawayo Hospitals. There she was examined and kept under observation for a few days. Whether the medical staff were able to diagnose her condition is not known, but some time later she was discharged to her secret "home" in Killarney. Within a few days she was dead. The cause of death unknown. Mavis was buried on Sunday November 6.

The pastor who conducted Mavis' funeral had barely returned to his own home when the phone rang. A colleague advised him that Mavis' 6 month old daughter, Flora, had also died. Would he please conduct the funeral? He did two days later, with a broken heart for the beautiful baby whom he had once held tenderly, and grown to love as he supported the family through their terrible ordeal. Christian friends paid for the little coffin that her father was obviously unable to afford.

Leaving just one member of the little family to survive Operation Murambatsvina - Luke Mkandla, aged 33, who grieves now for both his young wife and baby daughter.

What consolation can anyone offer this distraught young widower, or Patrick Ncube's widow and children for that matter? Week by week the number of grieving families increases. Another Bulawayo pastor told our reporter that he conducts, on average, between 3 and 7 funerals a week. Of these about a half are for the victims of this dastardly campaign. What words of comfort can anyone offer the relatives of Mavis and baby Flora or Patrick or the countless others who are dying across the country week by week, the unseen, unrecorded victims of this crime against humanity?

Nothing will bring any one of them back of course but perhaps the one thing that will bring a measure of consolation to the grieving families would be the knowledge that the perpetrators of this gross crime will one day be brought to justice. The criminals include the strategists who first dreamed up the plan, as well as the compliant politicians, army and police chiefs who went along with it, whether out of conviction or fear. All of them, right down to the zealous Mugabe thugs who executed the plan, must be brought to justice. In recommending that all those responsible be held fully accountable, Mrs Tibaijuka noted that their deeds were in breach of both national and international law. Bringing them to justice therefore must be a priority for whatever government is installed once Zimbabwe achieves freedom and democracy. This is the least we owe to the victims, and indeed to ourselves if we are to ensure that never again is such a crime against humanity perpetrated in this land.