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U.N. Official Rebuts Harare Criticisms of Housing Program

The top United Nations official in Zimbabwe voiced perplexity Wednesday in response to complaints by a minister who alleged that a model home which the U.N. built as the forerunner of thousands of temporary dwellings for the homeless was sub-standard.

Agostinho Zacarias, U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator for Zimbabwe, told a Harare news conference that the model home constructed at the Hopely Farm transit camp outside Hararer was jointly designed by U.N. and Zimbabwean technicians.

Dr. Zacharias said the Zimbabwean technicians were recommended by the Ministry of Local Government, whose minister, Ignatius Chombo, was quoted in state media such as the Herald and Daily Mirror newspapers, as harshly criticizing the model home.

According to the Herald, Mr. Chombo said the one-room house insulted Africans.

The U.N. official said the government sent him a letter last month giving its approval to the start of construction of such temporary homes for some of the many thousands left without dwellings by the slum clearance campaign Harare launched in May.

Dr. Zacharias said the modest homes would represent a significant improvement in the living conditions of those now camping in the open and living under plastic sheeting.

With funding from the Netherlands, the United States and the U.N. Habitat agency, he said, his office could build 2,500 such housing units in the next three months.

He added that the U.N.’s Zimbabwe office had mechanisms in place to ensure that only those displaced by the “cleanup” operation would receive such homes.

Relations between Zimbabwe and the U.N. have become strained in the past several months, particularly after special envoy Anna Tibaijuka issued a report in July which condemned the slum clearance drive, and continuing through the more recent visit by U.N. humanitarian aid coordinator Jan Egeland, who was also critical of Harare.

Mr. Egeland barely concealed his chagrin at learning that Zimbabwean authorities had in October torn down tents erected earlier by U.N. relief workers, and at being told that the use of tents for shelter was injurious to Zimbabwean national pride.

President Robert Mugabe himself refused to allow tents to be provided to Zimbabwe's internally displaced population created by the May-July slum demolition drive.

Following Mr. Egeland’s visit, the government bristled at the envoy’s statement to the U.N. Security Council in which he discussed Zimbabwe's humanitarian crisis in the same context as the conflict-related emergencies in Darfur, Sudan, and in Uganda, where the Lord's Resistance Army insurgency has spilled into neighboring states.

Correspondent Dumisa Khumalo of VOA’s Studio 7 for Zimbabwe filed a report on the news conference called in Harare by U.N. Resident Agostinho Zacarias.

For perspective on the growing tension between Harare and the United Nations over Zimbabwe's humanitarian crisis, reporter Patience Rusere spoke with Peter Kagwanja, the Pretoria-based director for Southern Africa for the International Crisis Group.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...