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Running for their lives

Zimbabweans flood South Africa, where compassion has ebbed.

September 09, 2007|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

MUSINA, SOUTH AFRICA — The two men stared at each other for a long moment, captor and captive: a white game farmer named Andre Nienaber, with mirrored sunglasses, neatly pressed khaki clothes and an aura of military precision; and a 16-year-old Zimbabwean orphan named Peter Jell, wearing a cap marked "Jesus" and the desperate look of someone who knew he was headed back to the country he had risked his life to escape.

Moments earlier, the South African farmer had arrested Peter and four other Zimbabwean border jumpers where they sat, exhausted, hungry and demoralized, hoping to hitch a ride 300 miles south to Johannesburg.

He cuffed the five to the back of his truck with plastic ties and called the police.

"We're so frightened to go back to that hunger country, where there's nothing," Peter said as he waited.

His parents died in a bus crash two years ago, Peter said, and he has five younger siblings and no hope of feeding them. Before he left Zimbabwe last month, he and the other children, ages 2 to 12, were eating two or three times a week. In between, he said, the children scoured the bush for any wild fruit they could find.

"It's terrible. You feel sorry for them," Nienaber said before buying some bread and milk for the five illegal immigrants and handing them over to the police. Yet he sees the Zimbabweans who cross his land, cutting his fences and destroying his water pipes, as a threat to his survival.

The tide of Zimbabweans arriving in South Africa, driven by extreme shortages of food and basic goods, has grown into a flood as strong as the nearby Limpopo River in the rainy season.

Zimbabwe used to be one of Africa's most prosperous countries. Its slide into economic chaos under President Robert Mugabe's regime has forced people to make heart-wrenching decisions -- taking their children out of schools because they can't pay the fees, or even leaving them behind while they try to find work in South Africa.

The government of South Africa rejects the view of some activists that hunger and social upheaval in Zimbabwe are so severe that most border jumpers should be classified as refugees. The migrants are sent back to the chaos and poverty they fled.

The countryside around the Limpopo, which forms the border between the two nations, is a stunning canvas of red earth and green bush, but at times it is like stepping into a bygone era. Walk into some bars around here, and you're plunged into the reflexive racial hostility of apartheid.

You might hear someone express the view that there is no such thing as a good black; another says that "it just doesn't look right" when you see black people driving BMWs around Johannesburg. Not everyone puts it so bluntly, but you occasionally run into whites who, like the Leonardo DiCaprio character in the film "Blood Diamond," still refer to Zimbabwe by its colonial-era name, Rhodesia.

Some people profess pity for the Zimbabweans, but many farmers have run out of compassion. They go on regular patrols, rounding up Zimbabweans and handing them to the police, and some of the farmers say they are so angry that they sometimes feel like shooting the trespassers on their land.

Thousands arrested

Police have stopped releasing statistics on immigrant arrests. The latest police data available indicate that here in Limpopo province, police arrested 5,000 Zimbabwean border jumpers in January.

But the army alone has arrested almost 42,000 Zimbabweans this year, and expects the total to reach 100,000 by year's end, compared with about 72,000 last year, according to figures provided at a military briefing to businessmen and farmers last month in this border town.

The majestic baobab trees that loom tall in Limpopo's scrubby acacia bush are of little scenic interest to hungry, footsore travelers from Zimbabwe, who care only for the shelter and shade they offer. The spectacular rocky outcrops are just barriers to walk around.

To landowners, the stony, dry soil is of little value except for game farming. The landscape draws hunters from all over the world to kill kudu, eland, impala -- all antelope -- and other game.

It's not hard to pick out the ragged, dirty border jumpers who venture onto Limpopo's roads looking for a lift. They radiate fear and vulnerability.

Akimu Tafire, 17, and Sheron Chimbuya, 20, had been wandering for five days without food or water after crossing the border with a group of 100 people.

"There's no food. There's no clothes. Education is poor and life is bad" in Zimbabwe, said Akimu, an orphan who supports five siblings.

Zimbabweans speak of a disintegrating society, a place so desperate that mothers of young children leave them behind to make the terrifying journey south.

Cecilia Mapani, wizened and worn down at 25, left Zimbabwe in March because there was no way to feed her young brothers and her 7-year-old son, Tanaka.

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