/ 6 September 2008

Zim militia become ‘nation builders’

The military men arrive in roaring trucks, bearing axes. They also carry bricks, cement and thatching grass.

At a homestead near Gokwe in the Midlands province, villagers marvel at one of the many ironies of their struggle to rebuild their lives.

The army was accused of leading militia loyal to Zanu-PF leader Robert Mugabe in a brutal election campaign that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change says left more than a hundred people dead.

Now, in the rural Midlands, it is the same army that is building new huts on the charred ruins of dozens of homes and restoring burnt-out granaries and grocery stores.

The work is part of the military’s “corporate social responsibility programme” to mark last month’s Defence Force Day celebrations, villagers were told.

Trust Maphosa, the defence ministry secretary, gathers villagers and traditional leaders, telling them “it is now time for Zimbabweans to concentrate on nation-building and shun the violence”.

The soldiers themselves take great pride in their work. Augustine Ruwambara, a major, describes how his engineering unit has rebuilt homes in three districts of the impoverished Gokwe area. They have brought thatching grass in from Kwekwe, 100km away.

Only months ago, the sound of approaching trucks was a signal for villagers to flee their homes. Militiamen in government vehicles waged a terror campaign, and the violence worsened when local opposition activists organised and began fighting back, residents say.

Many of the displaced are only returning now and having to start all over again.

“I was lucky,” says Anna Gura, from her bare family store. “They looted and ransacked the shop, but they couldn’t burn it down.”

For Gura, it is an uneasy truce. The man who sacked her store is well known to her, and owns his own shop in the same business centre. “I had boxes of soap and cooking oil in the storeroom. He took everything. Everybody knows it.”

She meets her tormentor every day. They even attend the same church. “They’re saying we should now live in peace. I agree. But what about the people we know who killed people? As for me, all I want are my things back.”

With government ordering aid workers returning to the field to work with local leaders, many of those responsible for the attacks will be the ones taking the lead in feeding their victims.

It is hoped that aid agencies will peel back the curtain and reveal the true impact of the violence and the extent of the humanitarian crisis.

Although some restrictions remain even after government lifted the ban on their activities last week, many aid groups have been fanning out into the countryside.

During the ban, the little aid work that continued reached only one- tenth of the two million people said to be in urgent need of food assistance. A Zimbabwe Crop and Food Security Assessment report says the number of people in need could rise to five million by January.

While the focus has been on the immediate task of feeding the most needy, many still lack shelter. Returning to their homes, they are forced to pay “fines” before they are allowed back into their communities to begin rebuilding their homes.