The Standard, Saturday, 28 August 2010 19:21
CHOKING smoke- filled air greets you as you enter a squatter settlement at Borrowdale Race Course in Harare.
Dark burn marks are the only tell-tale signs of the places where shacks once stood, while the owners roam about probably pondering what the future holds for them. An elderly lady, too weary to walk or show emotion, sits near a destroyed shack occasionally shaking her head, but not once does she say anything.
The structure, it was later learned, was once a church where the squatters gathered every Sunday to offer their devotions to God.
Nearby, a man is reconstructing his shack and the material of choice is thatch grass.
He says he slept in the open for three nights and his young family can no longer take it.
A young man watches and does not look interested in rebuilding his own “house” although his bedding is in the open.
He seems to have left his future to an unknown destiny.
This group and probably a hundred more are part of a group of squatters who reside at the racecourse and were victims of a brutal early morning police raid.
Armed police, clad in riot gear, estimated to be about 50, descended on the camp in the early hours of Wednesday, razing to the ground all the structures in the vicinity.
“They came at 1.30am and without warning they ordered us out of the area, while at the same time burning our houses,” said Shingai Nota, an illegal settler. He complained that they were harassed by the police, who did not bother to explain what they were doing.
“We lost everything; our food, bedding and clothes,” Nota added. “We were not even given a chance to salvage the little property we had.”
He said they were fortunate that there were no casualties in the numerous infernos lit up by the rampaging police, but feared there could be disease outbreaks.
During the raid, Tendai Marazva another settler claimed that police kept shouting that they should return to their rural homes as they were making Harare dirty.
Marazva said he had been living in the area for more than a year and this was his first brush with law enforcement agencies.
About 100 metres away another group gathered and a pastor led them in prayer. The squatters were restless but obviously excited.
A group of priests had just finished distributing blankets, soap and some food rations. “We gave an average of two blankets to each family, but obviously that is not enough,” one pastor said.
As he was speaking his colleague pulled him by the jacket sleeve ordering him not to say anything further.
“Just call us a group of pastors. You want to get us arrested. No, we will not tell you our names,” he said, as he dragged his colleague away.
As the pastors move away, a quarrel erupts over stolen blankets. A man, probably in his 30s, claims that his blankets have been stolen.
He runs after the pastors hoping to be given extras, but he finds no joy and he returns fuming.
“I know you stole my blankets because you want my wife. I have seen the way you look at her,” the man shouts, but seemingly to no one in particular.
The fracas soon dissolves but not before he screams expletives, threatening that he will bewitch whoever stole his bedding.
The women on the other hand seem disinterested and most are tending to fires. Most have babies on their backs, while others roam about aimlessly.
Police spokesperson, Oliver Mandipaka professed ignorance on the issue. “I didn’t hear anything of that sort,” he said.
Despite the raid, the illegal settlers maintained that the area was their home and they would not budge.
About 55 squatters were reportedly arrested during the raid and they spent more than 15 hours at the Harare Central police station.
The raid brought fresh memories of the brutal slum clearance known as Operation Murambatsvina, which left more than 700 000 people homeless.
The operation also affected thousands of informal business people who had their structures destroyed.
BY NQABA MATSHAZI