'If not for this guitar, I think I would die': Foreign nationals still in limbo after forced removals

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A poster outside the Cape Town Central Methodist chuch (Jenni Evans, News24)
A poster outside the Cape Town Central Methodist chuch (Jenni Evans, News24)

Kande-Serge Kande strums his guitar as people step around his outstretched legs at the Central Methodist Church in Cape Town. 

His eyes are closed as he sings and prays to take his mind off what comes next at his place of refuge.

On Wednesday, the police executed a court order to remove hundreds of foreign nationals who had been holding a sit-in at the Waldorf Arcade near the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) between St George's Mall and Burg Street. 

At least 100 people were arrested, while children were carried off by officials and later kept with their mothers in holding cells. 

They were released later, but on Friday some were still hobbling around from injuries they sustained during the chaos when stun grenades were thrown and the police grabbed people to bundle them into vans.

"If I didn't have music, I would have died by now," said Kande, as his mother, Clementine, sat on the floor with her legs also stretched in front of her, her eyes closed as she prayed. 

They have created a small "room" next to the church's aisle between the end of the pews and a pile of suitcases. 

Like the others there, they spend their days waiting, with their time punctuated by the handing out of food and basic essentials such as nappies, sanitary towels and water from Gift of the Givers.

"My life is a long story," said Kande, as the church's Reverend Alan Storey stood outside asking people to move cars to help remove bottlenecks at the corner of Longmarket and Burg streets.

He added he had fled the Democratic Republic of Congo during a long period of turmoil there, and settled in Libya. Then, in Libya, media reports claimed that the Congolese were killing Libyans, and so it was time to go on the run again.

"You don't book a ticket, and plan nicely. You just move."

Kande settled in South Africa, although he left a son in Chad with friends. But it was not long before he felt that same sense of not belonging. 

"I can't name how times I have experienced xenophobia," said the painter. 

He added on one occasion he was almost pushed out of a window in a high-rise building "for stealing jobs". 

"I just want to stay with my family so that I can educate them. We are just praying because I don't know what to do. I am just facing Jesus.

"When I'm feeling sad, I just have to sing," Kande said.

Under a tree near the art and curio market in Greenmarket Square, a group of Somalians caught up on some sleep after the stun grenades of Wednesday and the hurly burly of media attention on Thursday. 

Toddlers ran up and down, playing with the whistles they found in the lucky packets from Gift of the Givers, a mom showed off her baby girl sleeping peacefully, and even the cooking row seemed to be taking a rest. 

In the meantime, there was no further word on their fate. 

They are demanding that they be evacuated to a country other than their country of origin because they do not feel safe in South Africa as foreigners.

The UNHCR said not everybody met the criteria for this, but it would continue trying to resolve the situation at the church, and also among people who held a similar sit-in in Tshwane.

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