The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Draining the Sea

June 19, 2005

The situation in Zimbabwe deteriorates even further, with the government pressing ahead with its campaign of mass violence and political cleansing:

EVERY morning Father Michael looks out of the window of his Harare parish house and sees an ever larger crowd of homeless families outside.

“I feel helpless,” said the Jesuit priest, who was too terrified to give his real name. “I keep telling them my little homilies, that the violent will not win, they will have to answer for what they have done, but I see a city ringed by fire.

“People who worked to look after their families — carpenters, metalworkers, street vendors and caterers — have been turned into beggars by their own government. This is a crime against humanity and all we can do is give them black plastic sheeting.”

As Operation Murambatsvina or “drive out filth”, moves into its second month, as many as a 1m city-dwellers have been made homeless by government bulldozers and axe-wielding police.

Churches have become the only refuge for people who have lost everything. But priests have now been warned not to help by the government of President Robert Mugabe.

Harare has been turned into a refugee city with marauding bands of families pursued through the smoking rubble by police who move on anyone they find sleeping outside or still retaining a few possessions.

Some have been taken to camps outside the city such as Caledonia Farm, where there is only one lavatory for several thousand people. Those with money have left for villages but many have no family to go to and the country’s fuel shortage means buses are few and far between.

Others have returned to Harare, claiming village chiefs are refusing to accept them because there is not enough food. Zimbabwe is facing its lowest harvest since independence. The United Nations estimates that 6m Zimbabweans are in urgent need of food aid.

With international aid agencies prevented from helping, those who can have sought shelter from the freezing winter nights in church yards and halls.

But confidential minutes of a meeting last Wednesday between community representatives and government officials headed by Ignatius Chombo, the minister of public works, confirm that church leaders have been refused permission to help the homeless.

The Catholic church has called for prayers all over the country today. Bishops will condemn “the injustice done to the poor” in the bravest move yet to stand up to Mugabe.

“It’s social engineering with sledgehammers,” said Oskar Wermter, a Jesuit priest in Harare. “I do not know anyone poorer than a widow with her orphaned grandchildren — remember, there is Aids all around — surrounded by the rubble of her destroyed home.”

Yet far from halting the brutal campaign, which has seen people forced to destroy their homes at gunpoint, government officials said yesterday they were extending it to rural areas. “We must clean the country of the crawling mass of maggots bent on destroying the economy,” declared Augustine Chihuri, police commissioner.

The announcement came as a list compiled by directors of education in Zimbabwe’s 10 provinces showed that more than 300,000 children have dropped out of school since their homes were destroyed.

According to Catholic priests, many of those seeking refuge have appeared in the past couple of days waving pieces of paper forced on them by police. These are bills for water, sewerage and electricity on their destroyed homes and businesses, complete with enormous penalty charges.

“A stream of people come to the parish, waving those ominous letters, asking for loans to pay them,” e-mailed one priest yesterday.
“It’s just becoming madder,” said a Zimbabwean reporter. “All this puts a question on Mugabe’s patriotism. It seems as if he hates his own people.”

Steve Kibble, of the Catholic Institute for International Relations, put it more starkly. “This is a genocide policy,” he said. “It’s a strategy of letting the urban population die by leaving them to starve in the bush rather than facing the bullets of Mugabe’s goons. It doesn’t cost them a cent.”

Governments often turn to mass violence as a way of “draining the sea.” If you can’t be sure who your enemies are, you can simply destroy or displace everyone who might be in the opposition. This seems to be what the government is up to:

Whatever the reasoning, nobody is spared. Among the properties to have been wiped out are many built by war veterans, the men who were Mugabe’s staunch supporters and were used to carry out the violent invasions of white-owned farms.

One of those to have the roof fall in on him last week was a leading war vet called Dickson Chingaira, better known as Comrade Chinx. During the land seizures, he composed and sang a song called Hondo Yeminda which refers to whites as “devils” and was frequently played on state radio.

Police demolition squads descended on a mansion he had built near Ngungunyana Housing Co-operative in Harare, an area mainly occupied by war veterans.

The government’s position?

Reuben Marumahoko, the deputy minister for home affairs, told the civic leaders last Wednesday that the operation has been a success. “Streetism has been wiped out,” he said. “Robberies have fallen down drastically and ladies can walk in the city freely.”

It wasn’t long ago that developments in Zimbabwe prompted another round of the “guns and mass violence” debate. Whatever one thinks of that particular issue, I think anyone who is following events in that country can agree that Mugabe’s policies are reaching the point of naked Stalinism. What will the international community do? What can the international community do?

The South Africans are too paralyzed by their own fears of being labelled sub-Saharn Africa’s “Oreo” to effectively challenge the club of petty dictators and tyrants that continues to support Mugabe. There’s no evidence they will ever substantively abandon their “see no evil, hear no evil” policies.

Britain has taken the lead on condemning the regime, but it can’t impose sufficient costs on the regime to make a difference. Meanwhile, our President gives his own homilies about “freedom” and “democracy,” but can barely get his act together on Darfur and Uzbekistan.

Zimbabwe is only a small part of what’s a stake in sometimes abstract debates about how to build a better liberal international order – or whether to abandon the effort altogether. We need to keep that in mind.

Even more importantly, we need to figure out how to put a stop to Mugabe and his gang of thugs. The Catholic Church is doing what it can. What will we do?

(Thanks to Amy P. for the link)

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.