Refugee camps in Durban still house thousands

2015-04-26 15:00

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Blessing Sererie is caught between a rock and a hard place. The 35-year-old has been living in a refugee camp on Chatsworth’s Unit 3B sports grounds for the past week and a half since fleeing his rented room in Welbedacht to avoid the xenophobic attacks that began in Durban three weeks ago.

A Zimbabwean national who arrived in Durban from Harare eight years ago, Sererie wants to take his wife, Madeline, and son, Brandon, who was born here six years ago, to Harare to avoid the violence, but his entire life is in Durban.

“I’ll be honest, my man, I’m stuck,” says Sererie. “I’m scared. I would love to take my family and go to Harare to be safe. I can’t go now. There’s nothing I have in Harare. If I go there, I have no house, no job, nothing. I need to make a plan first.”

While he works out what to do, Sererie has taken what little cash he has and bought bananas and oranges. He has set up shop outside the tent that has become his temporary home. Boxes turned upside down are used as makeshift tables covered with sweets that he sells for 50c and loose cigarettes that go for R1.50 each.

“I can’t sit here and starve,” says Sererie. “I’m not working now, but I need to keep my money circulating. Life has to go on. I still have a family to support.”

Sererie is a shoemaker by profession, but has been forced to sell sweets and cigarettes to make ends meet.

“This is just to keep going, my man. We came here after the shacks near us were attacked. They left the brick houses, unless they knew there was a foreigner renting the house for sure. When things calm down, I can go home,” he says.

The Chatsworth camp, which was still home to more than 2?300 displaced foreigners by Thursday, is not getting any emptier, despite the almost daily departure of convoys of buses taking those who want to be repatriated back to Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. By Thursday afternoon, 175 new arrivals were being processed for the day, joining the queue for buses back to their home countries.

At nearby Isipingo camp, where the first Congolese refugees were housed after spending two days at the local police station, the flow of refugees has eased up. The tent village that sprang up on the sports field next to the landmark Island Hotel will “hopefully” be partially dismantled by the end of the weekend, according to camp manager Bheki Mngwengwe.

By then, Mngwengwe estimates, the 576 Malawians waiting to be repatriated will have left and only the 300-odd Congolese and Burundians who “can’t go home” will remain behind, and he hopes talks to have them reintegrated into their communities in Isipingo and Umlazi will have paid off.

“They have difficulties at home. They can’t go back. These people are refugees. They are here legally and have to stay. They have nowhere else they can go,” he says.

While the Malawians wait for the fleet of Kalamazoo buses – which regularly travel between South Africa and Malawi – to come and fetch them, life goes on in a weird way.

Mobile libraries, clinics, classrooms and kitchens have sprung up around the tent village. There’s a steady flow of Good Samaritans bearing breyani to feed the hungry masses.

Sharif Usman keeps busy by doing his washing. He’s just waiting to go home. “There’s no life for me here. I have to go home. I just want a bus,” he says.

At Rydalvale Sport Grounds in Phoenix, where displaced people from the city’s northern townships and Verulam are being housed, the inflow of people is slowing. Camp manager Sipho Mthethwa is also confident the 1?400 people left there will either be repatriated or reintegrated in the next week or so.

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