‘Please let us back in …’

2014-01-18 00:00

THE displaced foreign nationals who suffered a brutal xenophobic attack at the Jika Joe informal settlement in Pietermaritzburg this week have a desperate message for their former neighbours: “Please let us back in”.

Almost all foreign nationals who spoke to Weekend Witness yesterday said for years prior to the attacks on Wednesday night, they had lived happily at the settlement and although they are scared, they would like to resume their lives.

“We have lived here for many years, and we have lived nice lives and there were no problems,” said Mohammed Ali from Malawi, one of the affected people.

Ali, along with at least 50 other foreign nationals, took refuge at the local mosque. Huddled in a group and standing along the concrete walls of the mosque, the men looked tired, worried and scared yesterday.

They have lost everything. Almost all of them have to survive with just the clothes on their backs. Their homes were looted and destroyed.

Others were concerned they had left their girlfriends and children at the settlement and want to go back to them.

As they slept at the mosque, reports were received that there may have been plans to attack the mosque. However, they spent the night in peace.

Jika Joe exploded in violence after a local man who had been involved in a fight with foreign nationals was found dead.

Although some claim the man was murdered by foreign nationals, Weekend Witness understands from a variety of sources that he may have been accidentally electrocuted.

Police spokesperson Colonel Jay Naicker said they recovered the body of Mzwakhe Kheswa (24), a resident at the settlement. “No visible injuries could be found on him and his cause of death is undetermined at this stage. A post mortem will be held to determine the exact cause of death. No foul play is suspected.”

He said police continue to patrol the area, however, when Weekend Witness visited Jika Joe yesterday there were no police present.

Ali said some locals have invited them back to the settlement. He said he was still shocked at how the locals instantly blamed all foreigners for the death. “When they came to attack, they did not ask us anything, they just attacked us with knives and pangas and steel pipes.”

Others wanted to go back one last time to see what was left of their belongings before they start over.

“I could go back to my room to see what’s left, but I know that they took everything,” said Ackren Nyson, also a Malawian. “They took my clothes, my food and raided my home and took my blankets and my phone, I am left with nothing.”

Nyson said it was thanks to his girlfriend that he was not injured or killed.

“When the meeting [where the community decided to attack foreigners] was called, my girlfriend told me not to go because I would be beaten up … by 5 pm, the violence flared and I had to run away.”

Steven Mathe (22) from Mangochi in Malawi, said he was too terrified to go back. He has only been living in the settlement for the past five months and what he saw terrified him.

“I have been in South Africa for the past three years and I came to Pietermaritzburg to be close to relatives … I would like to remain in South Africa, but I would prefer to live in a different part and not in the settlement.”

Jika Joe community leader Bheki Dladla said they were trying to reintegrate foreign nationals back into the settlement.

“Many are very scared, many have left probably for good and the houses they occupied have been left vacant. There are others who want to come back. We have told them that they should come back because we are trying to bring normality back.”

Dladla said those who handled the initial meeting had failed the community. “They should not have let all foreign nationals be victimised; they should have dealt directly with those suspected of wrongdoing.”

Other local people have rallied around those displaced.

A place of worship in France township has offered the affected people temporary shelter until they are back on their feet.

Local lawyer Ashin Singh is currently involved in negotiations and safety assessments that would allow all those that were chased out of their homes and robbed of their belongings to return home.

He said he had been at Jika Joe until midnight on Thursday trying to broker peace so the foreign nationals could move back into their homes.

Some of those who Weekend Witness interviewed wanted to go home, but others said they were not willing to return there, as they remained in fear of their lives.

Timeline of attacks on foreigners in PMB

May, 2008: Sporadic attacks on foreign nationals in Pietermaritzburg saw property set alight and a Zimbabwean national leaving Imbali covered in blood. A shack in the city centre occupied by a Congolese man was burnt down and the occupant was threatened and told to get out of SA.

May, 2008: Paramedics reported that a Malawian man had been shot and badly injured in Durban and 11 Malawian nationals escaped with their lives after their Kenville home was petrol-bombed.

June, 2012: A Burundian and Malawian living in Pietermaritzburg suffered a gruesome death after they were stabbed by a mob in France following a night out with friends. Four others, also foreign nationals, were injured in the attack. One of them, a Malawian, died later in hospital.

August, 2013: Three Ethiopians were stabbed in what seemed to be an alcohol-fuelled brawl involving South Africans and foreign nationals living in Pietermaritz Street.

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