CHINGWIZI — Thousands of displaced Tokwe-Mukosi flood victims have reportedly deserted their makeshift homes at Chingwizi Transit Camp after police stormed the place over the weekend and set the camp on fire in alleged retributive attacks after the villagers torched two police vehicles during earlier skirmishes.
Informed sources at the camp yesterday said some of the families had sought refuge at the nearby Nuanetsi Ranch, while others were hiding in the surrounding mountains.
This came at a time police had reportedly sealed off the camp and barred the Press from visiting the area as they intensified their search for suspects linked to the burning of their vehicles.
Some 300 villagers had since been arrested in connection with the fights and as of yesterday, they were still detained at Triangle Police Station in the Lowveld.
Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights’ Phillip Shumba, who is leading a team of lawyers representing the villagers, said Triangle Police Station had been overwhelmed as the cells have a capacity to hold only up to 15 suspects, resulting in the arrested villagers being fenced in the open, exposing them to the cold winter nights.
“By Saturday morning, they had arrested 80 and the figure ballooned as the day progressed given that some lorries were seen coming and others leaving with the villagers. I visited them at Triangle Police Station where they have been put in a fence since the cells cannot cater for all of them,” Shumba said.
“It is so pathetic. They have arrested a lot of people, including old men and ill people. It was so random. The arrests are retributive and now the cells are overcrowded and they fence people in the open like animals at the police station.”
Shumba could not say when the villagers would appear at the Chiredzi Magistrates’ Court for initial remand.
The villagers, who spoke from their hideouts, said they had fled the camp fearing arrest.
“After the police cars were torched, we went into hiding in the nearby mountains. We knew the police were going to take revenge by indiscriminately beating up everyone at the camp. The arrests were targeted at everyone
. . . they are just taking away men they find in the camp. So we left our wives and children,” a man who was in hiding said.
A woman, who was arrested and taken to Triangle Police Station but released on health grounds, yesterday said she was also contemplating leaving the camp, fearing further harassment.
“I did not take part in the violence, but surprisingly I was arrested. I am ill and I could not have participated in the riots. I will be leaving the camp like many others who are going to their relatives because the camp is now a war zone,” she said.
Chingwizi was hastily set up in February to accommodate about 3 000 families displaced by the flooding Tokwe-Mukosi Dam.
But the villagers have been fighting government since they moved into the camp, accusing it of contributing to their misery and loss of property in the floods.
The families have refused government attempts to relocate them to a new site before receiving the $8 million compensation they were promised.
Several measures, including cutting food hand-outs to make villagers move to the new site, have failed.
Meanwhile, the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) yesterday distanced itself from the disturbances, saying its officers were never involved in the raids carried out at Chingwizi over the weekend.
ZDF spokesperson Colonel Overson Mugwisi said the raids were purely a police operation that had nothing to do with the army.
“The army has no business in mounting a pre-dawn raid on unarmed civilians,” Mugwisi said yesterday.
“This was a purely police operation and as the defence forces, we actually have no business in the raid — worse still, a raid conducted on flood victims.” — Chief Reporter/Own Correspondents