South Africa Absorbs Zimbabwe Refugees

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The escalating crisis in Zimbabwe has sent an estimated two million people into neighboring South Africa. The conditions they are willing to endure there speak volumes about conditions in Zimbabwe.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Tensions are running high in Zimbabwe right now. The ruling party has endorsed President Robert Mugabe as its candidate for the 2008 election. He has ruled in Zimbabwe for 27 years, and his leadership is widely blamed for the nation's political corruption and economic crisis.

The situation has become so dire that many citizens of Zimbabwe are leaving their homeland and heading south, across the border into South Africa. A large number of these refugees are now living in an infamous section of Johannesburg that's become a haven for illegal immigrants from across the continent. As NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault reports, the conditions they live in say a lot about what they left behind.

(Soundbite of music)

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: This bustling but run-down area of Johannesburg is known as Hillbrow. Its grimy streets are lined with sleepy hotels and decaying tenements, peopled with prostitutes, drug dealers, criminals and hustlers from all over the continent. In recent years, an estimated 2 million Zimbabweans have crossed into South Africa, many of them winding up here.

On a recent morning, I met a Zimbabwean who, out of concern over further harassment, would only give his name as Nkululenko, an Ndebele word meaning freedom. He arrived in South Africa three years ago and applied for political asylum. He agrees to take me on a tour of what passes for his new home. He's 33 years old and tells me he was a junior prison guard in Zimbabwe. He says he left his homeland after being harassed by senior prison officers who accused him of supporting Zimbabwe's opposition Movement For Democratic Change simply because, he says, he read one of the few independent newspapers in the country.

Nkululenko's journey across the Limpopo River, separating Zimbabwe from South Africa, was perilous. He traveled with 14 other men.

NKULULENKO (Zimbabwean Refugee): Yeah, we're crossing the river and we're holding hands and there's crocodiles. The river was full. So when we were crossing, two of our guys drowned in the river. I bet they were eaten by the crocodiles.

HUNTER-GAULT: Nkululenko eventually reached Johannesburg and Hillbrow. He slept where he could, sometimes taking refuge in a late-night club.

NKULULENKO: There's a disco there, which used to play on for long hours of the night until the early hours. So I was staying there by 4:00 a.m. and then we'd go to town to sleep here.

HUNTER-GAULT: By here, he means the streets where he lived among other homeless. As we walk, we see half-dozen or so young boys in rags - some sleeping, others sniffing glue, their faces puffy and swollen, all lined in urine-soaked rags.

(Soundbite of children bawling)

HUNTER-GAULT: Eventually, Nkululenko found shelter in a run-down tenement with no services. It already was home to hundreds of illegals crammed into tiny rooms.

NKULULENKO: More (unintelligible) they didn't fix the lights. It's a big problem with electricity.

HUNTER-GAULT: We climb the stairs to the fourth-floor apartment, the air rank from stinking piles of rotting garbage and airshafts used as urinals.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

HUNTER-GAULT: Nkululenko locks the door to his one-room flat.

(Soundbite of women chattering and laughing)

HUNTER-GAULT: Inside, I find seven other Zimbabweans. Three beds take up most of the space in the tiny room. While many of those fleeing Zimbabwe are trying to escape the soaring inflation and unemployment, others are fleeing persecution. One of those living here is 25-year-old Cynthia. She says she left Zimbabwe 11 months ago after government officials tried to force her to join the ruling party's Youth Brigade, which had been accused of intimidating voters and assaulting government opponents. She refused.

CYNTHIA (Zimbabwean Refugee): I didn't want to join because they were treating people bad. They were beating old ladies, the - doing nasty things. They're behaving badly, so I didn't want that because I am - I was a Christian.

HUNTER-GAULT: She says they tried to get her mother to force her to join.

CYNTHIA: So my mother refused that, then they beat her to death.

HUNTER-GAULT: Cynthia fled the country but faced more horrors after crossing the Limpopo River.

CYNTHIA: When I - when I crossed the river, we were four girls and two guys. Then they raped the three of - there are some guys who - usually they stay at the - in the bush. Yeah, they raped the three of us. It's, like, you can't even scream because they are killers.

HUNTER-GAULT: But one did scream.

CYNTHIA: After that, they killed - that girl, then this - because she was screaming.

HUNTER-GAULT: Three months later, Cynthia found out she carried with her the seeds of her violation.

(Soundbite of infant crying)

HUNTER-GAULT: Her baby girl is now two months old. Cynthia and her seven roommates are afraid to venture out for fear of being caught and deported. And when some do, just to try to earn and enough money to buy food, they skip breakfast, have tea in the early afternoon, and then for dinner, each has a slice of bread. They say this life, though, is preferable to returning to Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe.

(Soundbite of men conversing)

HUNTER-GAULT: In addition to high prices and no jobs, Zimbabwe under Mugabe these days is also a place of brutal attacks on the political opposition, though the government claims the opposition is provoking the violence.

Our final stop is a park, where a handful of mostly young Zimbabwean men are sitting together, talking of revolution.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking in foreign language)

HUNTER-GAULT: One who calls himself Mumtamunisis(ph) says the only way to solve Zimbabwe's problems is war.

NKULULENKO (Zimbabwean Refugee): You call that what you need to fight. You will do it, like rebelling against(ph) the country. Actually, what needs to happen is Mugabe has to be forced out through a rebellion, again using...

HUNTER-GAULT: Nkululenko translates but doesn't agree. He wants to see change, but through peaceful means.

NKULULENKO: You see, this needs Zimbabweans to unite and see a common problem -problems. It needs the youth, especially, so they just come in in here and doing nothing and the situation doesn't change - Mugabe capitalizes on that.

HUNTER-GAULT: And for now, that means more and more Zimbabweans swelling the population of Hillbrow's Little Zimbabwe. Charlayne Hunter-Gault, NPR News, Johannesburg, South Africa.

(Soundbite of music)

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