'I saw my friend being killed in front of me'

Regina Chinyandi (21), of Zimbabwe, arrived at the Alexandra police station on Monday with her one-day-old baby, Prince, wrapped in a napkin. Upon her return home from the hospital after giving birth, she had found her shack in ruins and all her friends from the township missing.

“Confused, she started walking, unable to afford taxi money to the nearest police station,” says Flora Shabangu, clinic manager at the charity organisation Woman and Men against Child Abuse’s Kidz clinic in Boksburg. She is currently assisting at the police station.

“When she arrived here, she was exhausted,” Shabangu says.

Chinyandi is lying on the floor, under a single blanket, still too exhausted to talk. She is just one of the about 27 000 foreigners left homeless in Gauteng since fierce xenophobic attacks started 11 days ago in Alexandra.

According to police, by late on Wednesday, 42 people had been killed and 400 arrested for various offences related to the violence.

There are now 21 volunteers working at the Alexandra police station, which houses hundreds of foreigners who come and go. “My legs are paining [hurting],” says Elizabeth Mokoena, a community coordinator volunteering at the station. “I sleep at the police station to try to help these people every night.”

Refugees at the police station in Diepkloof, which has also seen violent attacks in the past week, say they don’t know the scope of the attacks, since they have no newspapers to read or access to any other media.

“We are just sitting here. Stranded. Not knowing where to go or what is happening next,” says Michael Mwale (47), a Zimbabwean who has been at the station for more than a week.

“We have not bathed for a week,” he says. “We have no buckets or soap and we need shoes and jackets. Blankets are a problem. I was cold last night. It is winter. There arrived 10 more people today [Wednesday] and they don’t have blankets yet—and some of them have children.”

Mwala was unable to find employment in Zimbabwe and came to South Africa searching for a job to provide for his children. “I am still unemployed because I could not find a job here either. Now I am stranded here and I still can’t send money to my family.”

Another stranded foreigner, Charles Munganya (20), from Malawi, used to be a shop employee in Marabastad in Pretoria. He has lost everything in the attacks.

“I wanted to save money to do something good in my country. I wanted to be a crop and maize farmer and start my own business at home. They [the attackers] took everything I had. That means I worked so hard for nothing.”

Like many other foreigners, Munganya will do anything to return to his home country. “It is better to be killed at home than to be killed in another country,” he says. “I saw my friend being killed in front of me. He was lying in his bed with dead eyes. He was beaten to death.”

Manganya says that local officials have told foreigners that buses will return them to their home countries, but the refugees do not know when—or if—this will happen. “Even if I go home, I will never put my foot in this country again. This country is only for South Africans,” he says.

At the Diepkloof police station, there are nine volunteers serving the growing number of foreigners arriving at the station. According to a police officer, who asked not to be identified, there have been rumours of South Africans planning to drive the foreign refugees out of the police station, “taking away the only shelter that they have”.

Another officer at the station says police have been working around the clock to contain violence in the area.

“I have been working from early this morning and I will only be returning home at 7pm tonight. Then I have to be back at work at 11pm. I am really tired,” she says, rushing off to Olievenhoutbosch, a nearby informal settlement where tension was reported late on Wednesday afternoon.

At the Bramley police station, close to Alexandra, 14 women and 10 children are sleeping in a garage. Outside, 120 men are housed in tents. There are eight portable toilets around the station for the 144 people housed there.

“We only escaped with the clothes on our backs,” says Nonhlanhla Luphahla (24), from Zimbabwe. She appreciates the three basic meals the refugees receive every day, prepared from donations.

Unlike the foreigners housed at the Diepsloot police station, those at Bramley are lucky enough to be able to bathe, using buckets.

“But it is hard to bathe in cold water in winter,” says Luphahla. She shakes her head. “I just don’t know.”

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