JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Armed paramilitary police swept through a Harare township, pulling down more 100 prefabricated wooden cabins, including one with screaming children inside, witnesses and opposition activists said Tuesday.
Monday's raid took place despite promises that police are winding down Operation Murambatsvina (search), or Drive Out Trash, a so-called urban renewal drive that has destroyed the homes and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans.
Police could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
It was the latest in a series of raids against Hatcliffe township, where an estimated 20,000 people have already been forced from their homes since police started torching and bulldozing shantytowns, markets and other structures deemed illegal on May 19.
A United Nations (search) envoy is in Zimbabwe to assess the humanitarian impact of the campaign, which aid workers and opposition leaders estimate has displaced up to 1.5 million people at the height of the southern African winter. Police put the figure at around 120,000.
Since U.N. envoy Anna Tibaijuka's visit was announced, government officials have repeatedly stated that the demolished homes will be replaced with a $325 million reconstruction effort.
On Monday morning, truckloads of paramilitary troops raided Hatcliffe, smashing homes, chasing street vendors and seizing their wares, witnesses said.
"First they came after us sellers at the market area, where the council gave us the green light to sell," said Brighton Chiwolo, a cigarette seller who lost his job as a supermarket checkout clerk last year. "Then they went from street to street ordering people to demolish the cottages that were there."
"Some five or six kids that were there ran and locked themselves in a cottage, and then the police went and demolished it with iron bars while the kids — aged 9, 10, 11 — started screaming," he said.
The children escaped unharmed, but another resident was injured when a sheet of roofing fell on his foot, Chiwolo said.
Officials have said previously they are targeting illegal structures, but Hatcliffe residents said they are being forced from land and homes given to them by the government itself ahead of elections in recent years.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai (search) told journalists in South Africa on Monday that the demolitions appeared aimed at breaking up strongholds of the opposition to President Robert Mugabe's (search) government among the urban poor and diverting attention from its economic failings.
The destruction comes at a time of economic crisis in Zimbabwe (search), where inflation has topped 144 percent, unemployment is around 70 percent, and an estimated 4 million are in urgent need of food.
"I am going on playing hide and seek with the police. I still have to sell — I cannot find a job," Chiwolo said.
The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (search) said in a statement Tuesday that the evictions have also disrupted HIV/AIDS treatment programs and left the sick exposed to the elements. A number of people have reportedly died of pneumonia since they were left to sleep in the open.
David Coltart, spokesman for the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (search), estimated some 30,000 people have been left homeless in the southwestern city.
"There are relatively few on the streets here because churches have opened their doors," he said. "Every church hall is jam packed with internally displaced people and families are doubled-up in homes."