By the time the squatters arrived at Bulawayo's churches at June's end, they had nowhere else to go. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was herding them off their makeshift shanty towns, the only homes they had. But little did the roughly 1,200 locals know the church walls would provide little sanctuary.
Operation Murambatsvina-literally "Drive Out the Trash"-has been in full swing across Zimbabwe's cities since May 19. The ostensible justification is to clear away "illegal" trading and settlements. The operation gained the attention of the UN, which sent special envoy Anna Tibaijuka to investigate the demolitions.
Her report, issued July 22, said the government-sponsored raids have left 700,000 Zimbabweans homeless, jobless, or both-a cleanup known locally as the "Mugabe Tsunami." "It will take several years before the people and society as a whole can recover," the report said.
In reality, locals say, Mr. Mugabe's government is zeroing in on the poorest urbanites for supporting the country's opposition party in March elections. The 25-year ZANU-PF regime also has begun to forcibly relocate Zimbabweans into the countryside, Pol Pot-style, where they are isolated and can muster little resistance to their brutal government.
In Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city, authorities pressured pastors and ministers of a dozen churches to turn out the refugees but met resistance. The victims, stuck in the midst of Zimbabwe's worst-ever economic crisis, salvaged what they could-scraps of corrugated roof sheeting here, a blanket there. The churches they turned to did not have enough bathrooms or space, but helped as much as they could with food, shelter, and medicines. Passersby could tell the refugees were staying in the churches by washed clothes hung to dry on tree branches.
Authorities lost patience with the churches' hospitality and beginning at 10 p.m. on July 20, police in full riot gear stormed the churches. They woke the victims, packed them onto trucks, and carted them to Balu Estate, a holding camp north of Bulawayo.
The Zimbabwean human-rights website Sokwanele-meaning "enough"-reported the details of the hours-long sweep online. Without "any prior warning riot police descended on the churches," said Graham Shaw, a Bulawayo Methodist minister and human-rights activist. "It was clearly a totally illegal operation also carried out at night."
The victims were not left at the holding camp. A day later, authorities dumped them indiscriminately into famine-stricken rural areas, with no access to food, water, or shelter. Younger refugees dropped off closer to Bulawayo walked 12 miles back into the city, including, according to the Sokwanele website, three street children caught up in the original raid.
When authorities transported the refugees to Balu Estate, they also banned church representatives from visiting. Now church leaders are trying to reestablish contact with the destitute Zimbabweans who are stranded in the countryside.
"We can only interpret this as an attack on the poorest of the poor, and now, an attack on the church," Rev. Shaw told WORLD. The raids mean Zimbabwean churches have less and less room for dissent-even in the simple form of aiding the weakest. For Zimbabweans, Operation Murambatsvina has only accelerated a crisis sparked by Mr. Mugabe's grab of commercial farmland five years ago. Food and fuel shortages abound, and his government deprives opposition supporters of vital donor food aid while awarding it to party loyalists. The raids and forced relocations weaken the opposition even further.
"In the rural areas, if they stay there, they're totally dependent on the government," Mr. Shaw said. "There was a major political motive behind this retribution."
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is planning to follow his envoy's work with his own visit. But Mr. Mugabe's regime has virtually ignored the report: His officials began moving the Bulawayo homeless into the countryside a day after it became public. Mr. Shaw predicted "the cleanup" will speed up, he said, so Mr. Annan can see everything is "running sweetly."