/ 5 June 2008

In the camps

Mail & Guardian journalists visits camps in Gauteng where refugees from xenophobic violence have been relocated.

It’s 7pm on a Sunday night when we arrive at Jeppe police station in Johannesburg. The smell of cooked food fills the tent where women and children take shelter.

A woman sitting on a basket quietly stirs a pan of spinach on a paraffin stove. Children run around noisily between plastic bags, suitcases, blankets and mattresses. Leaning against a blue and white striped plastic bag, a woman breastfeeds her child. A group of men tries to repair a cellphone. Others have already lain down, trying to sleep despite the activity around them.

Under a light at the tent’s entrance, Jennifer Banda, a Zimbab­wean, reads a small religious book given to her by one of the churches providing aid to the refugees. Next to her is a green plastic tub that she uses to wash herself in the morning. She is a domestic worker in Mayfair earning R800 a month and still goes to work, leaving the tent at 7am each day. “I just want to work as there’s nothing that I can do,” she says.

“Oh, it’s so dirty here, crowded and sad, so you cannot sleep,” she says when we tell her we plan to spend the night, still smiling in the middle of the misery around her. “I came late. I only have a blanket,” she says. “I’m sure those ladies from Congo will help you.”

We introduce ourselves to Ndjulu Avoko, a Congolese woman. She is better off than many other refugees and has a stack of blankets. She takes a photo out of her bag. “As you see, I had a stall in town where I was selling clothes, blankets and accessories, but they [the attackers] took everything that I had and now I’ll have to start from scratch.”

Avoko came to South Africa in 2000 after losing her husband in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s civil war. “I ran away from the DRC because of politics, and here in South Africa we are getting the same treatment. Most of us do not have IDs and the rules here in your country are no ID, no house; no ID, no birth certificate for your children. You go to the hospital and you are told, no birth certificate for kwere­kwere children.”

Avoko gives us a blanket and mattress for the night — sheer luxury, compared with many around us.

There are about 20 temporary toilets in the police station’s courtyard. Despite being cleaned daily by some of the refugees, the toilets are used by hundreds of people and quickly become dirty.

By 10pm the tent is settling down. Suitcases and plastic bags have been stacked to create some kind of privacy. Alexis Nduwimana, from Burundi, sits with his wife and two other women on the single mattress they have. The women lie crossways on it during the night but go to sleep only at 1am “because you cannot sleep in a place like this — Most of the time we are just sitting here, hoping that time will pass.”

In a corner three Congolese families are having tea, which they have prepared on a paraffin stove. It’s also a source of heat in the tent, which is already cold inside. “But it will be much colder during the night,” seven-year-old Sarah says. “The blankets get wet.”

The three young sons of Patrick Muyembe and his wife, Mufame Adriane, are already asleep. He stays in the tent with his wife and children until bedtime when the men leave to sleep outside. But Muyembe doesn’t sleep much — he visits the tent every hour to check on his children. The Congolese women spread three blankets on the ground and use the others to cover themselves. The children brush their teeth and Adriane changes her child’s nappy before giving them all a dose of cough syrup. “All the children have flu, a cough; it’s too cold,” she says.

By 11pm it’s relatively quiet in the tent, which by now is freezing inside, as we try to sleep. The lights are still on and babies cry –and the sounds of coughing never stop.

As we head to the Cleveland police station at 5pm, all we can think of is food. The clouds are getting thicker and darker as we head to the makeshift refugee camp for the night. Arriving at the station we are greeted by the sight of people in a long queue waiting for food, assuring us we have not missed dinner.

Inside a courtyard behind the station are a couple of marquees where the refugees have spent the past three weeks. On the menu tonight: pap, gravy, wors and an orange. “People are going for seconds tonight because there is wors,” says a Mozambican man diving headfirst into his steaming plate.

You need a plate to get a meal, so we borrow one from a young man who had just finished washing it. We will have to share it. “You have to wait, the pap is on its way,” says one of the volunteers, staring at us suspiciously. After 15 minutes the pap arrives and she slaps a hot heavy lump on our plate. We get lots of pap, some Zimbabwean guys get more wors, so we muck in to share.

After sprinklings of freezing rain, it starts to pour down. As wind blows fiercely into the tent, young men rush to gather big wooden planks in an attempt to close up the open doorway.

Not everything is miserable. Women braid one other’s hair, mothers sing to their toddlers and a group of young boys play cards quietly in a corner.

In the centre of our tent another group reads the Bible and sings hymns. “Even in times of commotion and confusion and families breaking up we still have hope,” says Domingos Santanna, a young Mozambican man.
Two women have set up stands where they sell loose cigarettes at a rand each, plus sweets, peanuts and biscuits. They do a roaring trade from 7am to 7pm.

People try to stay positive and hopeful but there is suppressed anger and emotions run high. Just before midnight a fight breaks out between two men. A drunk man is accused of hitting a young girl while she played outside. Without asking any questions the girl’s father — half asleep and naked — jumps out of bed and attacks him. This ignites an uproar and people start lashing out at one other.

The cops want to know why people are drunk in camp — alcohol is forbidden on the premises — and Ritah Hlongwane, a Mozambican displaced from Jules Street, defiantly shouts back: “Yes, we did drink. What do you expect us to do? We want to forget. I drink to stay numb because they killed me when they burned my shack,” she says, eyes full of tears.

The Red Ants security guards are called in to keep order. They arrive in a group of 20, dressed completely in black, instead of their usual red overalls. “We are being attacked,” shouts a man in panic. A policeman intervenes to assure people that the guards are there to protect them.

By 1am things have started to calm down and people make their way to bed. By 3am they are snoring peacefully. But the peace is soon broken by someone who walks in and says officials are outside demanding that everyone write their name and nationality on a piece of paper to be sent to Pretoria. People heave themselves out of their blankets, fill in the form blearily and drop back to the floor to catch a few minutes more sleep.

At 4am people get up and start preparing for work. Many start at 6am; others work in Pretoria and have a long trip ahead. Others are too scared to go out.

Our blankets and pillows are wet from rain dripping from the roof. We queue in the rain to collect water from taps and find a private spot to wash. Men wash their faces and brush their teeth at the taps but women take water into the privacy of the flooded, stinking toilets.

A group of little children comes into the bathroom, barefoot and in pyjamas, wading through the ankle-deep water. Janet Songe, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, tells them angrily: “Go back and tell your mothers to put shoes on your feet — you will catch all sorts of diseases.”

Breakfast is delayed because the volunteers haven’t arrived to serve it. One of the refugees shrugs and tells us it’ll probably arrive between 9am and 10am. A load of donated clothes arrives and everyone rushes to join the queue in the freezing rain, desperate for something warm and dry to wear.

Counting the human cost
The xenophobic attacks that began on May 11 have left about 37 500 displaced foreign nationals around the country.

Of these, 19 453 are in Gauteng province while 14 144 are in the Western Cape and an estimated 1 700 in KwaZulu-Natal.

Around the country 34 shelters have been set up to accommodate displaced people. In Johannesburg Germiston City Hall and police stations in Alexandra, Jeppe, Cleveland, Primrose and Rabie Ridge have been turned into temporary shelters for thousands of refugees. In Cape Town six shelters have been set up and in KwaZulu-Natal 22.

On May 28 the Gauteng provincial government took a decision to move Gauteng refugees who had sheltered in churches, community halls and police stations to better shelters that adhere to international emergency-relief standards.

On June 1 an estimated 2 000 people from temporary shelters were moved to tents in Olifantsfontein Corlett Gardens and an area near Rand Airport in Germiston. A camp has also been set up in Akasia, housing mostly Somali and Ethiopian refugees.

Refugees in Jeppe Police station and Cleveland police station were scheduled to move to Vickers Road in Karsene West this week, but the Johannesburg High Court granted an urgent interdict preventing the relocation after an application by Lawyers for Human Rights, the Johannesburg Central Methodist Church and Médecins sans Frontières, who felt it was not safe to move refugees to the Vickers Road site, which is right next to a workers’ hostel. The 1 700 people at the Cleveland and Jeppe police stations will stay put until the provincial government finds alternative shelter for them.

Since the start of the attacks three weeks ago, 37 000 foreigners have left the country, says Hangwani Mulaudzi, a spokesperson for the Department of Safety and Security. — Nosimilo Ndlovu and Thembelihle Tshabalala