Noster Dzomba performs a play on baby deaths in Harare, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2010. According to an Amnesty International report released Thursday, The Zimbabwean government must urgently address the threats to the health and lives of newborn babies by immediately putting in place all necessary measures to ensure pregnant women and girls at Hopley settlement, and other Operation Garikai settlements, have access to maternal and newborn care. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)
updated 12/2/2010 5:39:03 PM ET 2010-12-02T22:39:03

Human rights activists on Thursday called for an urgent investigation into the high death rate of babies in communities resettled by Zimbabwe's government after a widely condemned slum clearance drive.

Amnesty International said that 21 babies have recently died in a community in southern Harare because of a lack of basic care facilities. Those living in the new, inadequate government housing and adjacent shacks were better off in their former shanty dwellings, the group said Thursday.

Simeon Mawanza, a spokesman for the rights group, said that expectant mothers now have to walk up to 6 miles (8 kilometers) to visit a clinic, and several have miscarried on the way.

The U.N. estimated 700,000 people were displaced in the brutal, allegedly politically driven demolition of slums and market stalls throughout Zimbabwe in 2005 known as "Operation Murambvatsina," or "Clean out the trash," by President Robert Mugabe's then-ruling party.

Mugabe's opponents allege the operation aimed to disrupt support for the political opposition in its urban strongholds in the same year as elections.

Mawanza said the victims lost their homes and livelihoods and some were resettled by Mugabe's government in housing projects around the main cities under "Operation Garikayi," or "Better Living" in the local Shona language.

A five-month study this year of the Hopley Farm settlement, a community of 5,000 people on the outskirts of Harare, found "appalling conditions" worse than those of their former impoverished districts, said Mawanza.

He said the old established districts had access to health care facilities close by, and an infrastructure of informal stores and markets.

The resettled homes are small, two or three-room brick or wood bungalows designed as cheap utility units by the U.N. Habitat housing agency. Few have running water or power meant to have been supplied by local utilities, he said. Shacks of plastic and cardboard have grown up around them.

Researchers spoke with mothers and relatives who could not afford transport to medical facilities in the capital of 2 million people that now has only four functioning public ambulances.

A decade of political and economic turmoil in Zimbabwe has led to an economic meltdown that also saw health care services drastically reduced across the nation. Harare city authorities have said most of their ambulance services for the poor have ground to a halt, and many have broken down through lack of maintenance and spare parts.

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One 40-year-old woman, identified only by her first name Megan, gave birth to twins in her shack in the Hopley settlement but both babies died because she had no medical care and there were no nearby doctors or midwives.

"This was her fifth pregnancy. She has four surviving children all born before the family was settled at Hopley," he said.

Fadzai, 25, gave birth in Zimbabwe's winter month of February at Hopley, but the baby died the same day "because she could not keep it warm" in her plastic shelter.

Another mother collapsed and miscarried after eight months of pregnancy while hefting large bundles of firewood miles to sell, her only source of income. Mawanza said no medical infrastructure has been placed in the harshly deprived settlements.

Clinics in Zimbabwe, and around the settlements, require $50 dollars to register for maternal care, which few expectant mothers in the settlements can afford, Mawanza said. Those without money, even with critical complications, are turned away, he said.

Private transporters and drivers don't venture to the settlements around urban centers because crime is rife and residents can't pay them, Mawanza said.

"We have to hold the government accountable to fulfill its obligations under international law to give every person a fighting chance to live," he said.

Across Zimbabwe since the collapse of health services, U.N. figures say about 770 mothers die in every 100,000 live births, one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.

"The situation seems to have escaped the attention of the authorities. It's as shocking as two Boeing 767s crashing without survivors" about three times a year, said Mawanza.

In 2008, the United Nations children's fund estimated 378,000 babies were born in the southern African nation.

The broke Zimbabwe government spends about $7 dollars per head of the population annually on health care. The World Health Organization recommends a basic minimum of about $35 per head a year.

Mawanza said researchers gathered their findings at Hopley from oral evidence from mothers themselves and community leaders; in such poor living conditions death certificates were rarely issued and babies were buried privately by family mourners.

He said one mourning mother, reflecting traditional African folklore, beliefs and superstition, told researchers stoically: "My baby swallowed the wind and died."

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