'You never forget the past'

Anne Marie is not her real name. But after 16 years as a refugee and under renewed threat of xenophobic violence, she is still very afraid that being identified could lead to further upheaval, displacement or even death.

“I am from Rwanda. I left my country during the genocide in 1994.
From there I went to a refugee camp in Goma, where I stayed for two months. Then it was two years in the camp in Bukavu. We stayed there until the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) came and bombed our camp. We ran into the bush and we walked for about a week. We arrived in Uvila and then we got a boat to Zambia. I was nine months pregnant and I was so afraid I would give birth in that boat. When we arrived we had nowhere to go but a Zambian family were very kind to us and took us to their home to spend the night.

The next day they took me to the UNHCR who sent me to hospital. I had to stand the whole night while I was in labour, because there were no beds. After I gave birth we heard rumours that the Zambians wanted to repatriate the Rwandese refugees, and we were afraid because it wasn’t safe to go home.

We went to Malawi where we stayed in Zakka camp for two years. The Malawian people were very friendly and we had lots of friends from the local community who came to the camp to visit us. Then in 1998 we heard a rumour that the Rwandese and Burundians were to be repatriated. The next morning the army surrounded the camp and came to round us up. But when they got inside the camp was empty—we had all fled during the night. The Malawian people helped to hide us in their homes, even though they were hearing adverts on the radio from the government offering them a reward to turn us in. They helped us to cross the border into Mozambique, and then we travelled across the whole country to get to Maputo.

Name change
The UNHCR had given the Mozambican government the names of all the people who escaped from the camp in Malawi, and told them to catch us so we could be deported. We changed our names and pretended we were from Burundi, and we stayed in a camp there for five months.

Then the UNHCR realized we had changed our names, so we had to run away again. A kind person gave us money so we could get a taxi to Johannesburg. When we arrived we didn’t know where to go so we found a Catholic church in town but they chased us away and threatened to call the police. We decided to go to the police ourselves because we thought they would help us but when we got to John Vorster Square they said they can’t help refugees.

It was night time, I was with my husband and children, but they said we were not allowed to sleep in the police station. But actually they were kind, because they paid for us to stay in a guesthouse and the next day we went to Home Affairs and filled in the papers for an asylum seeker permit. At Home Affairs we met a Burundian lady who gave us a place to stay.”

The years went by and Anne Marie and her family found their own home, educated their children, paid taxes and made a contribution to society. She works as an interpreter and clinical assistant at an NGO that assists survivors of violence.

Then in May 2008, it seemed like everything they had built and the peace they had found was to be forever destroyed.

Ashamed to be South African
“We were living in Malvern, and on that Sunday we went to church. We saw that all the immigrants’ houses and cars had been burned. At church our priest was crying - he said he was ashamed to be a South African. On the way home from church we saw dead bodies lying in the street. We made plans of how we would escape when the mobs came to our house but in the end those plans didn’t work.

When I heard my daughter screaming because there was a man with a gun in the kitchen, we forgot about our plans of how to hide and how to run. We all started screaming at him and he said he was a police officer but he had no badge or uniform. Luckily my boss phoned me just then and I told him what happened, so he evacuated all of us to a safe place.

I helped by counselling other refugee women who had been attacked.

When these things happen, they refresh our memories of the past. It made me feel like the 1994 genocide was going to happen again. It reminded me of the bombing of the refugee camps in 1996. Afterwards, my daughter said: ‘Now I understand a little of what you went through.’

The problem is that South Africans think we are coming to their country for pleasure. They don’t understand that it’s a struggle - no one wants to live in someone else’s home. All we want is to go home and live in peace. Being in exile means you never forget the past.”

This profile was produced by Oxfam in conjunction with the Mail & Guardian, and is part of our ongoing special report on Xenophobia: the reality.

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