Wermter relives Murambatsvina horror

IN 2005, government embarked on a nationwide clean-up campaign dubbed Operation Murambatsvina that saw people having their houses, cottages and vending stalls destroyed under the ruse that they were illegal.

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In a book published in 2013 under the title Mbare Reports, outspoken Catholic priest Oskar Wermter, who was working for the church in Mbare at the time, recalls the trying times that ordinary people who were hit hard by the operation went through.

The book gives an insight into the brutality of a government that is insensitive to the plight of its people as the most vulnerable in society – people living with HIV, orphans and the elderly – were the worst affected hit in a campaign that rendered them homeless.

Wermter saw first-hand the suffering of thousands whose livelihoods were cut off in a moment of madness and turned to the church for respite and more often than not, the church had its limited resources stretched.

As a pastoral priest living with a community he is a witness to the tragedy that is wrought on a people when those who are supposed to provide them with safety nets become derelict in their duty and choose to victimise those they are supposed to protect.

The book is a collection of articles that were published as a column in the electronic newsletter In Touch with Church and Faith between 2005 and 2012. The articles have been re-published in Mbare Reports in their original form, and this helps to refresh the memory of the reader of the gruesome nature of a government operation that went out of control and left thousands of people impoverished.

Wermter is a keen observer who, his finger on the pulse of the community he serves, and recollects how a mentally deranged woman became the voice of the victims, saying out loud what the “sane” could only speak forth in whispers:

“It took a mentally deranged woman to shout it out loud. Sitting on the rubble of her destroyed cottage, she kept repeating… asi handiwirirane naMugabe… But I don’t agree with Mugabe” (pp5).

The most heart-rending thing, according to Wermter’s narratives, is that most of those who lost in the operation were able–bodied people who had been caring for their immediate and extended families through a variety of vending enterprises.

For many days, those whose cottages had been destroyed had to sleep out in the open, using plastic sheeting for makeshift shelter from the chill of the nights.

Wermter places Murambatsvina in a wider economic and socio-political context, where those who had relatives in the Diaspora could afford to live fairly comfortably, while those of foreign extraction in Mbare had no rural home to go to as in the case of locals.

What is more painful, as demonstrated in the narratives that litter Mbare Reports, is how the burden of care naturally shifted to the womenfolk, “who don’t give up so easily” (pp30). One cannot help but observe the “feminisation” of poverty as women struggled to ensure that their families remained afloat, even after the men had given up. It emerges in these stories that a church that has not lost focus can remain relevant, alive to the basic needs of the people in the communities where they are located.

This was witnessed at the height of the operation, during which the church played a very, relevant, practical role in addressing the needs of the victims of Operation Murambatsvina.
Here, sick parishioners received Holy Communion at home before 30 of them were taken to two different Catholic churches where “they were guests of honour, and took up the front benches that had been especially reserved for them. They were specially addressed in the homilies and received anointing of the sick. After mass they were given breakfast in the parish halls, which lasted quite a while.” (pp34).

A Jesuit priest in Zimbabwe since 1966, Wermter has been a relentless campaigner for social justice for many years.

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