Desperate Children Flee Zimbabwe, for Lives Just as Bleak
MUSINA, South Africa — They bear the look of street urchins, their eyes on the prowl for useful scraps of garbage and their bodies covered in clothes no cleaner than a mechanic’s rags.
Near midnight, these Zimbabwean children can be found sleeping outside almost anywhere in this border city. A 12-year-old girl named No Matter Hungwe, hunched beneath the reassuring exterior light of the post office, said it was hunger that had pushed her across the border alone.
Her father is dead, and she wanted to help her mother and younger brothers by earning what she could here in South Africa — within certain limits, anyway. “Some men — men with cars — want to sleep with me,” she said, considering the upside against the down. “They have offered me 100 rand,” about $10.
With their nation in a prolonged sequence of crises, more unaccompanied children and women than ever are joining the rush of desperate Zimbabweans illegally crossing the frontier at the Limpopo River, according to the police, local officials and aid workers.
What they are escaping is a broken country where half the people are going hungry, most schools and hospitals are closed or dysfunctional and a cholera epidemic has taken a toll in the thousands. Yet they are arriving in a place where they are unwelcome and are resented as rivals for jobs. Last year, Zimbabweans were part of the quarry in a spate of mob attacks against foreigners.
For those in the know, crossing the border can be a simple chore, a bribe paid on one side and a second bribe on the other. But for the uninitiated and the destitute, the journey is as uncertain as the undercurrents of the Limpopo and the appetites of the crocodiles.
Where is it best to enter the river? Where are the holes in the barbed fences beyond? Where do the soldiers patrol? Perhaps the greatest risk is the gumagumas — the swindlers, thieves and rapists who stalk the vulnerable as they wander in the bush.
Williad Fire, 16, who arrived here on Jan. 4, is one of nine boys who came from Murimuka, a town in a mining region of central Zimbabwe. His story is a fairly typical one of serial catastrophe. He was living with an uncle after his parents died, but then the uncle died, too, stricken in November with an illness that Williad described with a mystified shrug: “He was vomiting blood.”
The boy was hungry, and scrounging in South Africa seemed to hold more promise than scrounging at home. To get train fare south, he sold his most valuable possession, a secondhand pair of Puma sneakers two sizes too big. He and eight friends then did odd jobs in Beitbridge, on the Zimbabwean side of the border, until they had saved about $35.
From there, Williad’s story takes another dismal turn. When the boys neared the river, they were confronted by the gumagumas, who pretended to be helpful, then pounced. “They hit me in the forehead with a rock,” Williad said. “I was carrying everyone’s money, so I was the one to beat.”
But they continued across the river, and here in Musina, the boys from Murimuka slept in the streets for a while, as many other youngsters do. Then they staked claim to a patch of sandy soil under the punishing sun at the Showgrounds, an open athletic field that is the designated repository for refugees. The population hovers around 2,000. Each day new people arrive, and each day familiar faces depart.
The South African government issues temporary asylum papers to about 250 of these refugees a day, entitling them to six months without worry of deportation. Unaccompanied minors are ineligible for this status, though, leaving them in an odd limbo, with no specified place in the bureaucratic shuffle.
Williad and his friends share a single blanket. They cook spaghetti over a fire fed with twigs and cardboard. Cans and buckets fetched from the trash are used as pots. Plastic bottles sliced open along one side serve as bowls.
Honest Mapiriyawo, a 13-year-old orphan, is the boys’ best beggar. Children compete at the supermarkets to carry groceries for shoppers in exchange for tips. Honest is tiny and winsome. People are drawn to his proper diction. “May I assist you?” is the phrasing he prefers.