The New York Times
Monday, April 21, 2008
More than 1,000 people a day are fleeing Zimbabwe and escaping into South Africa due to disputed election and violent crackdown that has followed; in past, men often escaped Zimbabwe to find work in South Africa , but many of Zimbabweans fleeing now are women and children; after early election results from March 29 vote indicated that Pres Robert Mugabe was losing to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, election commission halted results process; results have not been released and recount begun in 23 Parliament races is causing further delays; if there is runoff between Mugabe and Tsvangirai, many fear violence will increase; opposition party says more than 400 supporters have been arrested, 500 attacked, 10 killed and 3,000 families displaced; people who make it across border find sympathy in South Africa ; human rights advocates say only reason more people are not crossing border is because of increased security on South African side
Sarah Ngewerume was driven to the river by despair.
She said she had seen gangs loyal to Zimbabwe ‘s longtime president, Robert Mugabe, beating people — some to death — in the dusty roads of her village. She said Mugabe loyalists were sweeping the countryside with chunks of wood in their hands, demanding to see party identification cards and methodically hunting down opposition supporters.
“It was terrifying,” said Ms. Ngewerume, a 49-year-old former shopkeeper.
Last week she waded across the Limpopo River, bribed a man fixing a border fence on the other side and slipped into a nearby South African farm.
She was among the latest desperate arrivals in what South Africa ‘s biggest daily newspaper is calling “Mugabe’s Tsunami,” a wave of more than 1,000 people every day who are fleeing Zimbabwe across the Limpopo to escape into South Africa .
When a shallow, glassy river and a few coils of razor wire are the only things separating one of Africa’s most developed countries from one of its most miserable, the inevitable result is millions of illegal border jumpers. But South African and Zimbabwean human rights groups say that the flow of people into South Africa has been surging in the three weeks since Zimbabwe ‘s disputed election and during the violent crackdown that followed. One Zimbabwean named Washington, who goes back and forth across the border ferrying Super Sure cake flour and Blazing Beef potato snacks, said the government was now using food as a weapon and channeling much of the United Nations-donated grain to supporters of the ruling party.”As we speak,” he said, “people are starving.”
He seemed more defeated than anything else. “People hate the government,” he said. “But they are too scared to fight it.”
Commercials are now running on Zimbabwean TV showing grainy images of captives from the liberation war in the 1970s and reminding citizens not to disobey their leaders, recent arrivals said.
In the past, countless Zimbabwean men escaped to South Africa to drive cabs or work on construction sites and send money home. But these days, many of the Zimbabweans fleeing are women and children willing to take considerable risks to get out for good.
“We were hoping for change and waiting to see what would happen in the election,” said Faithi Mano, one of more than a dozen Zimbabweans interviewed after they had crossed the border last week. “Now, I have decided to quit that place.”
It does not look as if Mr. Mugabe, an 84-year-old liberation hero who has ruled Zimbabwe for 28 years, will leave office without a fight. After early election results from the March 29 vote indicated he was losing to the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, the election commission put the brakes on announcing results. The presidential results still have not been released, and a recount begun Saturday in 23 Parliament races is now threatening to drag things out further — the opposition has deemed it “illegal.”
If there is a runoff between Mr. Mugabe and Mr. Tsvangirai, many fear it could get even bloodier. Human Rights Watch issued a report on Saturday saying members of Mr. Mugabe’s party were running “torture camps” where they took opposition supporters for nightly beatings.
On Sunday, the leading opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, said more than 400 supporters had been arrested, 500 attacked, 10 killed and 3,000 families displaced. The party released a detailed, day-by-day chronicle of violence that listed huts being burned, people getting cracked in the head with bottles and farms being invaded. The party blamed Mugabe supporters and sometimes government soldiers.
The government has denied any wrongdoing and accused opposition leaders of treason. Mr. Tsvangirai has said it is too dangerous for him to stay in Zimbabwe and has been spending time in South Africa .
The border between South Africa and Zimbabwe stretches about 150 miles, and it is headache-hot out here. “Beware of crocodile” signs shimmer in the sun, the grass is yellow and crisp, and at night, the trees churn with clouds of heat-crazed insects.
For the people who make it through, there is a pipeline of sympathy waiting on the other side. Fellow Zimbabweans living in South Africa — often perfect strangers — have taken in border jumpers, giving them a safe house and a warm cup of porridge, and helping them along their way to Messina, about 10 miles south, and then onward to the bigger cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Joyce Dube, director of the Southern African Women’s Institute for Migration Affairs, which tracks the border issue, said the only reason more people were not crossing was the recently beefed-up security on the South African side. “It’s getting tougher to get through,” she said.
South African military helicopters thunder over the Limpopo and soldiers prowl the border roads, searching car trunks for human cargo. Crews of men in red jumpsuits drip with sweat as they fix the fences. But it is a cat-and-mouse game. No sooner have they patched a hole than it is punched through again.
The fence runs for miles, a shining metal snake going up and down the tawny hills. It used to be deadly, electrified by a high-voltage current. That was in the 1980s, when South Africa and newly independent Zimbabwe were practically at war. Back then, many people were going the other way, fleeing South Africa ‘s repressive apartheid government to escape to Zimbabwe .
At the time, Zimbabwe was one of Africa’s stars. Mr. Mugabe had turned a relatively small, landlocked country into an economic powerhouse that produced beef, grain and tobacco.
“Bob Mugabe was my hero,” said a white Zimbabwean farmer who drove into Messina the other day for supplies. He did not want to give his name because he went on to criticize Mr. Mugabe’s more recent policies and said he was afraid he could be evicted from his farm for doing so. “I know it sounds funny, but it’s true. You have no idea how beautiful Zim was.” Zim is the affectionate nickname for Zimbabwe .
But in the late 1990s, Mr. Mugabe felt he needed to deliver on long-promised land reforms, and Britain, the former colonial ruler, was stalling on paying for them. Mr. Mugabe then encouraged blacks to seize white-owned farms. Whites fled, industrialized agriculture crashed, and today the inflation rate is more than 150,000 percent. Supermarkets often have no food, and 80 percent of the people have no jobs.
The Movement for Democratic Change ran on these woes, and in 2002 it nearly won power, though the elections were marred by violence and intimidation.
This time there was hope that things would be different. Recent arrivals say that a few weeks before the vote, the bullying suddenly seemed to let up — perhaps, some thought, because the ruling party was sure it would win. But when the first results showed Mr. Mugabe losing badly, the government went silent. There were some talks about Mr. Mugabe stepping aside. Then the crackdown began.
Ms. Ngewerume, the escaped former shopkeeper, said opposition supporters in her village in central Zimbabwe became easy targets because they had danced and sung in the streets after early results were tacked up on polling station doors. When the final results did not come, they went into hiding. But the thugs found them anyway, she said.
“I can’t see how Mugabe could win again after all this,” she said.
But, she added, many opposition supporters probably would not take the chance again to cross “the old man,” as Mr. Mugabe is often called.
Ms. Ngewerume was visibly pained just talking politics as she stood under a tree on a farm near the border. “I just want to go there,” she said, stabbing her finger vaguely south, in the direction of Johannesburg. “I’m just struggling to go forward to get something better.”