JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Rights groups showed a smuggled video Thursday of hundreds of thousands of poor Zimbabweans living in the open in the winter cold after the government tore down their homes in what it describes as an urban renewal project.
At news conferences in Africa and at the United Nations (search), more than 200 international human rights and civic groups said the campaign, known as Operation Drive Out Trash, (search) was "a grave violation of international human rights law and a disturbing affront to human dignity."
Police prevent journalists from filming the demolitions, so the footage was collected clandestinely by the church-based Solidarity Peace Trust (search).
The groups, including London-based Amnesty International (search) and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (search), released the footage showing bewildered families sleeping in the open in the winter cold after police torched and bulldozed their shanty town homes. Street markets were also targeted, their stalls left in smoldering ruins.
Zimbabwe opposition leaders, who have their base among the urban poor, say the monthlong campaign is meant to punish their supporters for voting against the ruling party in recent parliamentary elections.
President Robert Mugabe (search) has described Drive Out Trash as an urban renewal campaign.
The Zimbabwean government pledged Thursday to build new houses for those it has made homeless. After a seven-hour meeting of the government's highest policy-making body, Zimbabwe spokesman Ephraim Masawi (search) was quoted on state radio as saying military personnel would lead national and provincial reconstruction committees being formed immediately.
Answering questions Wednesday during a stormy parliamentary session, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa conceded harm had been done to legitimate housing by what he called a "cleanup" meant to flush out black marketeers and criminals. The government blames them for runaway inflation of 144 percent and shortages of most staples.
"We are aware that there is damage, people are homeless and so forth," the minister said. "But government has put into place the necessary logistics to address those immediate concerns, such as health."
Since police launched the blitz in Harare on May 19, it has been extended throughout the country, causing sporadic rioting as impoverished residents tried to resist the destruction of their homes and livelihoods.
This week, the campaign in a nation facing severe food shortages moved on to the vegetable gardens planted by the poor in vacant lots around Harare. Authorities say the plots threaten the environment.
International rights groups said at least 300,000 people have lost their homes by conservative estimates. The United Nations puts the figure as high as 1.5 million, though Zimbabwe police only acknowledge about 120,000.
More than 42,000 people have also been arrested, fined or had their goods confiscated, police said in the state-run Herald newspaper.
The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube (search), who has been a sharp critic of the evictions, was shown on the human rights groups' video saying he was so angered by the campaign he was "ready to stand before a gun and be shot."
At Hatcliffe Extension, a Harare township, residents told human rights groups they were being forced from homes given to them by the government itself ahead of elections in 2000 and 2002.
They said in the footage they were driven in trucks to a patch of wilderness on the outskirts of the capital, where they were shown surrounded by their paltry possessions.
"We were dumped here by people with whips," said one young man, whose name was not released for fear of retribution. "We don't know what went wrong. We were given these stands (plots) by the government."
When lawyers asked a high court to bloc the Hatcliffe evictions, they were told the removals were justified because some residents had made improvements to their properties without prior government approval, Arnold Tsunga of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said at a news conference in Johannesburg.
The rights groups urged the African Union (search), which is meeting in Libya next month, and the United Nations to act against Zimbabwe — but did not specify how.
They also demanded that Zimbabwe compensate the displaced and allow them access to humanitarian workers, who they say are currently being blocked from providing relief.