A HOME is not only a physical place of security, but one’s identity and sense of being.
For the 117 dwellers at the Killarney squatter camp in Bulawayo, plastic shacks and mud huts reveal their sense of identity and dignity as the winter night temperatures dive to single digits.
Urban rats live much better than these squatters who have been stripped of all hope and dignity. Unfortunately for them, they do not have the equivalent of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to rescue them.
These rootless, roaming, impoverished families sleep rough and literally scrounge for food, but their plight does not seem to raise a breeze of concern by both local and central government. Hard times also seem to have truly hardened their hearts as they are constantly harassed for being homeless as if it was of their own making.
The Killarney squatters epitomise the plight of urban homelessness which has been on the increase in Zimbabwe. Successive droughts have increased the amount of economic migration from rural to urban areas as people search for a better life. However, rampant company closures and downsizing especially in Bulawayo have seen a spike in joblessness and combined with high rentals has contributed to an increase in urban squatting.
Southern Eye discovered that most of the Killarney squatters were a second generation of the camp. They were born into poverty and have learnt to eke out a living in the same manner as their parents did.
They are constantly harassed and raided by the police and are always suspected of criminal activities by virtue of being squatters.
Recently, armed police details raided the settlement and arrested more than 20 men on allegations of involvement in crimes ranging from theft to muggings.
Their few possessions such as television sets, radios, DVDs and speakers were confiscated and labelled suspected stolen property and after they were released without charge, the property was returned.
In 2005, the government embarked on Operation Murambatsvina, a controversial clean-up campaign where all “illegal” structures were demolished, affecting about 300 000 families.
No land was made available for the affected families to rebuild their lives and new homes.
The Killarney squatters became nomads moving from place to place and being forcibly removed.
They spoke of the trauma they experienced by virtue of being squatters with others cursing the day they were born.
“I was born and bred in this camp and have witnessed all the ill-treatment that the squatters have had to endure. Since 1980, we have been moved from this place several times, but we still find ourselves back here,” 57-year-old Tony Ndlovu said.
“Initially many people settled here after independence because our rural homes were being burnt down. We sought refuge in this area because by then there was a mine and that meant employment for many.
“In 1983 we were chased away from the area by authorities and we moved to a different area within Killarney where we were again chased away in 1986 and dumped in Tsholotsho.
“In 1988 we returned to Killarney and were evicted in 2005 by Operation Murambatsvina. We were taken to Umguza, stayed up to 2007 and returned,” he said.
Ndlovu said they lived in fear of being evicted and moved to another area, but vowed they would return until they were given decent accommodation.
“No matter how much we may be moved or harassed there is no way we will leave this place because it is home to us as we were born here and we will only leave when we have been relocated to decent homes,” he said.
Wendy Khumalo (37) said several relocations had separated her from relatives.
“The relocation and harsh treatment that we have faced over the years is hard to forget. I do not even know what became of my mother and father because when we were taken to Umguza, some people were taken to Binga and others to some strange rural areas,” Khumalo said.
She said they had no choice, but to stay at the camp as they were poverty stricken and could barely afford anything.
“We are staying here because we cannot afford anything. We live each day as it comes and we do not know what each day brings for us. We capitalise on the little that we get and for the past years that is how we have been surviving,” she said.
Squatters did anything from menial jobs to illegal gold panning to survive, but said life was still tough as no one wanted to associate with a squatter.
Marvellous Dube, who was retrenched from a local company, said he moved to the camp because he could not afford rentals.
He lives in perpetual hope that one day he would be allocated a house by council to free him from the harsh conditions of the camp.
“Every day of my life I hope that our turn of being allocated houses will come because the living conditions in this area are unbearable. What makes it even worse is that we face harassment from the police and we have been labelled criminals yet we are just poor,” Dube said.
In 2012, over 197 families were relocated from the squatter camp and resettled at Mazwi village on the outskirts of Pumula in Bulawayo’s Ward 17.
Not all squatters live in mud huts or plastic shacks as others have invaded long abandoned train wagons.
Michael Museka, a former worker of a local company that closed early last year, moved into an abandoned train wagon in Westgate.
Museka said he only goes to the wagon at night to sleep as he is afraid of being spotted by National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) guards who would arrest him.
He said because there was no security in the wagons, his wife and five children were squatting at a church in Mpopoma.
“After I lost my job, I could not keep paying rent and other bills because I no longer had a source of income. As a result, I relocated to the old train wagons while my family found refuge in a church in Mpopoma,” Museka said.
Dumisani Siziba said he had been staying in a disused wagon for nine months despite being confronted by NRZ security to vacate.
“NRZ has confronted us several times and told us to leave the wagons, but because we have nowhere to go, we have stayed put. We do not want to be here, but there is nowhere else we can go. We cook, bath and do our laundry at nearby abandoned industries,” Siziba said.
Bulawayo deputy mayor Gift Banda said it was the local authority’s wish to provide the squatters with homes.
“We understand the plight of squatters and as a local authority, it is our wish to provide the squatters with homes, but due to financial constraints there is nothing much that can be done,” Banda said.
Environmental Management Agency provincial manager for Bulawayo, Decent Ndlovu, said squatters posed a threat to the environment as they settled in undesignated areas.
“In most instances there is poor waste management at such places and this results in pollution. During the rainy season, there is a possibility of outbreaks of water borne diseases, especially around those staying in low lying areas. Because squatters use fire to cook, the cutting down of trees results in land degradation and veld fires are common in such areas,” Ndlovu said.