The aptly entitled Operation Murambatsvina made over 700 000 people homeless in Zimbabwe's cities. It later became known as Operation Zvipwanyire Wega (Operation "destroy it yourself"), after people took over from the government and started destroying their own illegal structures. If they had waited for the government's destroyers they could have lost possessions like furniture and kitchen utensils in the utterly insensitive official drive. The government didn't care about what was inside those structures. The graders just struck them down and a number of people had even died in the process. So to be on the safe side you had to destroy your home yourself.
The bus on the early morning road had been gliding along like an ice skater. Nothing was challenging its stately, near silent traversing of the nation's arteries. Then the bus driver reduced speed instantly. I was tired and had been functioning between sleepy and awake for some couple of kilometres of the journey. We were just ahead of the Mvurachena shops on our way to Harare, where I worked. Mvurachena has a couple of shops and a gas garage on one side of the stream. On the other side was a mushrooming informal industrial settlement. Its growth for a couple of years now had been phenomenal to say the least. To its left was the Harare international airport and right across a bit ahead were the gates to Manyame air base.
I was surprised when the bus slowed down since there was no station nearby. I had drifted back from sleepy to fully awake. Inside the bus it was warm though outside it was cold and chilly. We were fast approaching midwinter. Everybody in the bus woke up. It started with those who were in the front seats saying "oh, oh, oh!" Another said, "Look at that!" Someone asked, "What's the matter?" And another, "Where are those police and army vehicles going?" Someone else: "Oh, there are a couple of graders in the middle!" The road shook as three bulldozers groaned and screeched like angry monsters, shuddering past us, keeping to the right side of the four-lane highway between Harare and Chitungwiza. Those graders were guarded by an entourage of police and army vehicles. Another person joked, "Mugabe is travelling in graders these days." People laughed, for Mugabe jokes always make people laugh. But everyone in this bus knew that wherever that herd of vehicles were headed had something to do with Mugabe - and something devastating at that. Anything to do with Mugabe was always like that. The country, the mismanagement of the economy, the elections, the governance of the country, all that had something to do with Mugabe. I had argued a couple of days before with my workmate about all these things. I asked him the question I always liked to ask people about Mugabe, especially those I knew supported the old man.
"How long do you want Mugabe to keep messing things for us?"
"He is not messing things. It's the whites' and the MDC who have been messing things here."
The funny thing was to realise each and every supporter of ZANU-PF replied to that question the same way as if they had become robots and were now functioning as a collective consciousness of some sort. He always disagreed with me on that. He was a Central Intelligence Organisation agent, based in the president's office. He always blindly supported the president and ZANU-PF against any criticism, justified or not. The other workers at the company always tried to provoke, but many were afraid of him. I enjoyed arguing with him though I knew he never took me seriously. He simply thought I liked to disagree with him and seemed to enjoy the arguments too. Despite our differences, we were close colleagues. We had covered for each other several times against the managers. I would do most of his work when he played truant. The managers were afraid of him. He was chairman of the notorious War Veterans of Harare Province. Nobody would willingly try to piss him off but I wasn't scared of him so I fought him head on.
"What have the whites done? Hey, they never stole an election. It's Mugabe who did that. They never stole money, the nation's coffers for their personal use. It's Mugabe and his bunch of kleptomaniac coterie who did that, not the whites, not the MDC, no."
"You don't know anything about this country young man...." He went on the defensive, and once set on this mode there was nothing, no argument that could get through to him. He would become very belligerent.
"We fought for this country, young man! That bunch of crooks you talked about deserves a piece of this country's wealth, young man. We didn't go to war so that the likes of you young people, young kids at that, and the MDC and the whites could take our hard won independence and country from us. You have never seen anything about ZANU-PF. You are going to see what we are going to unleash, especially on the likes of you; young fools who think they know so much about life. Just wait and see and then you will realise that it's ZANU-PF that rules this country."
He said it so confidently, with a streak of arrogance and nonchalance. I knew something huge was being planned by ZANU-PF. He'd often forewarned us, but now it was quite obvious that he didn't want to. I tried to probe him a bit more.
"What's going to happen Mr. Marombe?"
"No, I am not telling this time."
"Because it's a classified secret. You just wait and see, young man."
I knew I wouldn't extract more from him after that so I left it.
When the entourage of police, soldiers and graders passed our bus, people started to question each other. Had there been a strike in Chitungwiza that morning? Why were the police and army with their armoured vehicles going to Chitungwiza? I didn't know. Nobody in this bus knew anything.
When I arrived at my workplace I heard the same story coming from workmates from different high density townships of Harare. The feeling inside me was unshiftable; it gave off fractures of anguish, misplacement and a scored emptiness. I went to check with Mr. Marombe what those trucks had been about. He was in such a good mood that day. He laughed sardonically and only replied that he had warned me a couple of days ago.
"So what are they going to do in Chitungwiza?"
"You haven't figured that out young man."
"No," I answered.
He laughed and said that I had to wait and find out. He was having fun at my expense! I didn't understand but I said, "I see."
It was around ten that the morning when news began to filter through from several townships of Harare and Chitungwiza. Those graders, with army and police protection, were destroying all the illegal structures in those townships. These structures were occupied by the poorest of the cities' people. News came through of the destruction of people's Boy's Skies (the name given to those illegal shacks or brick dwellings), illegal truck shops and illegal buildings mostly in the high density areas. That afternoon in the news, on the radios, the government spoke of this operation and named it Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Clean-up). Cleaning up what? The city's poor. Everyone knew why the operation was ongoing: township people had voted against the president in the previous elections such that most of the cities in the country were now under the MDC rule and control. The operation was Mugabe's plan to displace this huge swell of support for Tsvangirai and the MDC and to punish them for rejecting him.
I asked my boss for the afternoon off so that I could go and help my wife to salvage our things before our home (an illegal structure) was destroyed with our belongings inside. My boss told me that he couldn't give me the time off because the opreation affected everyone at the company and they couldn't shut down completely. There was nothing I could do. I couldn't leave without his permission: I didn't want to lose my job as well.
My wife phoned me early in the afternoon. I couldn't decipher what she was saying through her crying, mumbling and groaning. There was also a huge swell of noise from people in the background - and the noise of the graders boring into our home. I knew what that meant. I told her to take care of the kids and try not to worry and that I would be home by nightfall. I had to cut the call. I couldn't take anymore of her crying. Her moans were urgent in their pain, the words half formed as if stuck in her throat. We worked for the whole of that day like numbed robots. Everyone was silent and brooding and everyone felt oppressed. Some cried; some hoped that their homes had been spared. A dark shadow descended upon everyone.
On the journey home I got a whiff of what to expect in Chitungwiza when I saw the informal industrial settlement of Mvurachena floored. Some people huddled besides the road. People on the bus journey could only groan with pain. Everyone was so scared of what they would see once we arrived in Chitungwiza. Many of our homes were in Zengeza 1 Township on the fringes of Chitungwiza. The area you would first touch as you enter Chitungwiza from Harare.
My body turned into granite when I first had a glimpse of our township. The place had been razed. Just a few houses were still standing. All the others had been decimated - and many of these were in fact legal structures! Dust and smoke swirled and hung in the skies. People were crying. Women, the eldery, some youth and children wailed as if at a funeral lamentation. Calling out to the heavens in the long notes, trying to see if their gestures would elicit an answer. Their belongings were piled on the streets and some were huddled together for warmth. They had nowhere to go now, nowhere to hide from the winter's cold. Broken concrete rubble and bricks littered the landscape. All these thousands of people were now along the streets and on the main roads: homeless. Some were looking for transport that could take them to their rural homes, some to relatives in some other parts of the city or in Harare. We all needed shelter. I had nowhere to go other than our rural home which was too far away and expensive to get to. It was money I didn't have.
Some streets had simply vanished leaving fields of rubble. The music and laughter had gone too. Ghostly eddies of dust and smoke danced around me, stinking my eyes. I sat down near the bus stop where I had disembarked and wept. Then I proceeded to our 'street' to find my family.
I found my wife in the street right across the place we used to call our home which was now debris. Our cottage was gone. Our two little kids were huddling for warmth in a blanket my wife had salvaged. She had also managed to save some pots and plates, clothes and other small utensils. The television set, radio, DVD player, wooden drawers and bed were destroyed. The sight was surreal, like some scene in a cataclysmic film. There was nothing I could say to my children, nothing I could say to my wife. I felt I had let them down. I couldn't look into their eyes. I knew I just couldn't take seeing their pain. I sensed the arching sadness behind my wife's unsmiling face, the insecurity and fear in my two boys' bearing. I helped my wife quietly salvage more items. In the distance the bulldozers were still rubbishing the remaining houses of the township, guarded by a fully armed police and army. Nearby, little boys and girls looked on as the houses were dug up, the street now full of pits and cracks.
I salvaged the mattress, and beat it into shape, also some drawers. The electronic gadgets needed some fixing. That night with thousands of other families, we lit fires on the fringes of the roads, cooked and slept outside in June's freezing cold. We knew we had to figure out our own problems because they would be no help coming from the government. The government was the instigator here.
We slept outside for a week in the winter's penetrating cold. Every day when dusk crept from the night's hidden lair the shadows would emerge, gripping my mind and my night's ritual would begin. I knew it would be another night sleeping in the dark, the sky polishing the stars, staring at those stars, trying to coax sleep, also staring at the empty spaces where our homes used to be. Those dark night skies were an immense lake and the stars seemed to remember us. They were like little boats navigating high above my head, wondering into the expanse of the sky searching for what was lost. I wondered during those dark nights where the sun had gone. I wanted it back in the sky. Some stars were twinkling like clusters of lime and orange in a glass. I knew it was only the sun's light that could blot those twinkling stars. I would wait for the day's break anxiously so that it could give new translations to the whispers of those stars. It was almost devotion, this waiting for daybreak, which would arrive slowly and late like crystals mesmerising my eyes. During the weekends when I did not have to go to work I would sit on a stone in the street right across another homeless fellow caked in dirt, resting by the avocado tree.
The more the days passed the more those graders destroyed the whole city, flooring all the structures they decided were illegal. So that Chitungwiza of mile long streets, of sometimes muddy, black-muddy-waste streets had gone. That Chitungwiza of a grim and original beauty simply vanished. That Chitungwiza, the romance of which had always attended to the alchemic process of skilled transmuting labour had gone too. The teenage clatter crackling in the air like spring-time birds, blind with optimism had gone too. The kids who had played together since diaper days and became old man together parted, each to his own... destruction. That was now our city with rotting corpses, bloodstained clothes, where the real heroes died out in the cold with no place to call home. The words that poison the soul will forever be hauled into the stomach of those monstrous trashing trucks!
At the end of that week I gave my wife some money for transport to our rural home after I had applied for an advance at the company. She left with the kids for our rural home in Hurungwe, so also with some of the things that we salvaged and repaired. I crashed in with a friend who hadn't suffered the same fate.
archive - issue 9