Friday, 26 June 2015

NOWHERE TO GO - The story of a refugee living in Durban

Words by Matt Vend and Emma Kelly 
Images by Matt Vend and Luke Molver



Roughly 3 months ago when the xenophobic crisis in Durban and across South Africa took place, a refugee crisis was once again created.  According to one of these refugees, after the first attacks happened in 2008 the government of South Africa told them nothing like this would happen again.

Then in April of 2015 it history repeated itself. The city is now trying to close its last operating refugee camp (Westcliff Sports Ground Chatsworth) on 30th of June 2015; this is according to Anicet Bigirimana, a 45 year Burundian man who has been living in South Africa for the past 9 years, after the situation in his country became too dangerous because of civil war. Birgirmana has 5 children living with him currently in the camp, one is still in Burundi - he is unsure of her well-being. He also lost his wife in 2012.

This is his story:

“I passed through Tanzania and Malawi, but I found it wasn't safe, so I continued on to Mocambique, where I found my friend who advised me to go to South Africa. He thought it was the only one country in Africa in which people from other countries could live peacefully without any problems. I arrived in 2006 and I lived in peace. I had work at Umbilo Spar and saved to bring my family from Burundi. Which was still at war, after that the trouble started in 2008. I was a victim of xenophobia, stabbed, and we were displaced, taking shelter at the Saint Eden Church for one month. The government decided to re-integrate the people back into the communities by guaranteeing us that it wouldn’t happen again.

In 2012 I lost my wife after she delivered a baby boy at Addington Hospital. I was shocked. She was admitted on 3-10-2012. On 4-10-2012 she was taken to the theatre for a caesarean. I was so happy to see my wife back from theatre with a baby boy!! On 5-10-2012 I got a phone call from the hospital saying that I had to come urgently. I was far from Durban and had to leave the truck in Empangeni, taking the taxi quickly. I heard bad news telling me that my wife had passed away. When I asked the cause I did not get an answer.

2015. Xenophobic attack took place again. It’s hard for me to leave with 5 kids, without a job, no place to stay and no hope of finding a job because I am not a citizen. I really need to leave this country. A lot of discrimination and human rights violation has taken place twice now. Everyone needs to enjoy life without interruption, we could just continue not to (have to) start again each year.”

On the 27th of April 2015 (Freedom Day) a group of concerned citizens decided to arrange a concert for the camp in hope of bringing some joy into the displaced foreign nationals lives even for a day. Since then Anicet says that not much help has come from government, but the UN has recently stepped in.  “The UN is now giving us a small bit of money R2000 for two months but this isn’t enough to rent a small flat and I have 5 children. I used to run a restaurant in Canada Road near Dalton Hostel, but that was destroyed in 2008 by the xenophobic attack. Then we were promised by the South African government that this wouldn’t happen again.  Since then I have been driving a truck to try and support my kids. I have been in South Africa 9 years and I still don’t have refugee status. I’ve applied but I’m still just here as an asylum seeker so I have very little rights. We have nowhere to go because Burundi is at war.”

It doesn’t look like the situation in Burundi will be improving as more violence erupts following president Pierre Nkurunziza seeking a third term in office. Burundi's vice-president has fled the country, saying he felt threatened after opposing President Pierre Nkurunziza's third-term bid.  This is all in the wake of an ethnic civil war which took place in 2005.
Anicet is a qualified mechanical engineer and ran his own business in Burundi before the civil war and before fleeing to South Africa seeking refuge.  He is also a musician, and used to play with fellow musicians from Burundi in Durban often.

He admits that the accommodation at the camp isn’t bad and there are clean running toilets, but police and local government haven’t helped in reintegrating them into South African society or finding them a new place to relocate. Unfortunately going home for people like Anicet isn’t an option.

He also highlighted the fact that the police haven’t treated the refugees in the Chatsworth camp accordingly. He also believes that the recent death of former President Nelson Mandela and the highly controversial speech of King Goodwill Zwelithini (which expressed disdain for foreign nationals) were clear reasons for recent violence. Anicet says on some days they don’t eat unless donations are given to them and he does not know what will happen to him and his 5 children come June 30th. The government has also urged the UN to step down from the re-integration efforts because they feel it is encouraging more people to return to the camp.

The Chatsworth Refugee Camp has now been taken over by the military. This was posted onto the Durbanites Against Xenophobia Facebook page on the 23rd of June ‘Today the army have taken over the camp and its 190 residents. This means nobody (i.e. no civilians)  goes in or out. They will manage all aspects of the camp and the aim is to close the camp and remove all residents in the near future”.
 “I had to leave my living place where we had all of a sudden become intimidated, unliked, criticized, threatened, and being asked “when will you go back to your country?” Overcome with emotion he pauses. “I HAD to leave my house with my family because we were not safe, taking shelter along with thousands of others at Chatsworth Refugee Camp”. A few times a week Anicet commuted between the Refugee Camp in Chatsworth to the three bedroom house he rented in Claire Estate (where he rented one of the rooms from a local – or in his own words, “a citizen”) - only for changes of clothing and to charge phones. He kept his family sheltered at the Refugee Camp out of fear for their lives from what they had experienced and been subjected to. He could no longer work as he was threatened there too. 
About 2 months into their stay in the camp, he arrived “home” to find his entire household, everything they owned burnt.   “They took everything outside and burnt it. Everything, including appliances, clothing, toys, books, my children’s school uniforms – EVERYTHING!  Imagine if we were inside still…we would be dead now.  As foreigners being killed, burned alive…to be re-integrated in communities does not mean that our name and our documentation of refugees has changed. What I have been facing in my country and what I am facing here is the same. What can I say about the closure of the shelter? The word of God gives me hope. We cannot continue to focus on what is happening... God knows where I am and he knows what I need, and I trust that he will provide.Thank you.”

Stacy, Anicet’s 11 year old daughter speaks of some of their experiences before going to the Refugee Camp. “They almost burnt Ronny” she whispers.  Ronny is her 8 year old brother. “He went to the shops to spend his pocket-money, just to buy, like junk, you know… We didn’t know this xenophobia was happening in our community. They took him and put him in a tyre, poured petrol on him and if Daddy hadn’t of been coming home from work at that moment and stopped it… Ronny would have died. He would have been burnt alive! “Daddy shouted at them “No, stop, this is my son!” They shouted at him “he doesn’t belong here, he is a foreigner.”  Anicet and his friend managed to free Ronny before they set him alight.  “Ronny didn’t ever leave the house again after that, she says quietly. Until we went to the Refugee camp.  When I was in the street they were throwing stones at me, telling me “Go home foreigner, you don’t belong here.  Then they came into our house and pushed us out. They were shouting at us “This house doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to us, go back to your country!”  When Ronny went with his father and they discovered their burnt belongings a few months after having been in the refugee camp.

In the next few days or weeks it looks there will be no place for people like Anicet and his family to go. How will they be integrated back into South African society with so many people trying to get them out of the country? Do you think there is anywhere people like Anicet and his family can find a place that they can call home?

Burundi, officially the Republic of Burundi, is a landlocked country in the African Great Lakes region of East Africa, bordered by Rwanda to the north, Tanzania to the east and south, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west.

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