Tegan Scales heard the fears and frustrations of ordinary men and women, many with small children, living in a refugee camp.
Policemen and Enforce Security officials crowd the entrance of a city-owned property at the end of a quiet road in Greenwood Park’s residential area. With clipboards and notebooks, these uniformed men try to record the comings and goings of donors, community members and journalists. Entering through the rusted mesh fencing – the only barricade between hundreds of frightened men, women and children and the outside world – one finds a driveway that leads up to a dark building.
The inside of the building overflows with rows of thin mattresses, rolled-up blankets and bags filled with personal belongings, which are sprawled across the patio outside. Three rundown tennis courts have washing draped over the fences. A two-year-old girl in a pink jacket laughs to herself as she crawls barefoot on the cold and dusty court. Quiet and unsure of what the day will bring, people begin their daily struggle.
These are the kinds of scenes one can expect to find at the site of the Greenwood Park refugee camp in Durban that has, for more than two weeks, been home to 500 attacked and displaced foreigners. Oshwald, a Mozambican man from Quarry Heights near Avoca who was attacked in his home on Wednesday night, stood overlooking the tennis courts with his bandaged head and hands. Barefoot and clad in a white blood-stained shirt, his friend described Oshwald’s attack.
“It was around midnight and he was sleeping. He locked the house so that he could get a head start if he needed to run. But the attackers surrounded the house and somebody screamed ‘stop him!’ They pulled him out of his house on to the street and beat him.” Oshwald’s friend, who did not want to reveal his name, said Oshwald ran away and called for help. Fortunately the police were there, and rescued him.
Linda and Belinda are also from Mozambique, and came to South Africa for job opportunities 10 years and two years ago respectively. Linda has a 9-year-old boy in Grade 3 at Greenwood Primary School and a 16-year-old son who she has not seen since arriving at the camp. “I don’t know if my baby is going to be able to go back to school. I have no money. I don’t know what is going to happen now.”
Edgard, a Congolese man who has made a living as a project manager for a company that builds RDP housing, has been staying in the refugee camp for 11 days. He was also described by the policeman at the camp’s entrance as “the person who represents the foreigners”. Edgard begins his story by saying the xenophobic attacks started when Ethiopians’ shops in the townships were being set alight. “Some were still inside. But I managed to run away in time because my landlord got word that people were coming to burn his house. So I left.
“I am angry that I had to pick up and leave my home just to be safe.” Edgard said he condemned those who were against xenophobic attacks but remained quiet: “I am angry with the people of this country who are sympathetic towards us, but will not do anything about it. And the ones who are talking about it on social media are the very same ones oppressing us and who are tired of us. “Everything I have worked for in the past 10 years was left in my house. They broke the door and vandalised my things. And now I have nothing and they want me to go back to a country I haven’t entered for 10 years.”
As Edgard explains his dire predicament, women are walking around in luminous orange vests with “Immigration” plastered on the front. They are said to be telling foreigners they are going to be deported. “How must I return to a country after 10 years empty-handed?” asked Edgard. Attempts to speak to these “Immigration” people were rebuffed and our authority to be there was questioned. The immigration officials sit at a desk on the patio talking to the foreigners. What Edgard cannot understand is how he, a man who went through the right channels to live and work in South Africa, is now being told he may be deported.
“We have an official document from Home Affairs called a refugee ID.” Edgard takes out a red ID book and opens it up to show his personal details in the document, as well as a South African passport for refugees. “We renew this every four years. So based on what grounds of law are they going to deport people?” Edgard stated that since his arrival at the refugee camp, he has yet to see or hear from any kind of organisation that deals with refugees.
“We have not once seen the Human Rights High Commission for Refugees. The only people we see are from Home Affairs and Immigration, and they tell us that they want to deport us,” he explained. Edgard mentioned a government official from disaster management, who tells the refugees they are getting free meals and accommodation and because of this, they should be going out of the camp and coming back late at night.
Edgard, however, asked them: “Is that really what you should be focusing on? Do you really think we want to be here?” Edgard sums up his point of view: “This isn’t a refugee camp. This is just a place where they’ve decided to keep us.” Oshwald, Edgard, Linda and Belinda spoke about the same problem they each face inside the camp: the lack of action taken by the South African and international authorities to resolve the problem of xenophobic attacks.
David, a Mozambican man who lived in Springfield Park with friends, said Thursday was his 16th day in the refugee camp and, most painfully, his 16th day away from his wife and children. “My wife is in Pietermaritzburg with my children. I know they are safe there because they are South African,” he said.
Every day the amount of food becomes less and space becomes tighter for those seeking refuge, as attacked and displaced foreigners flock to the camp for protection. “Today (Thursday) we received two more Malawians,” said David, “We eat rice, beans, bread and tea, but two pots for 500 people are not enough. So we are cooking from 7pm to midnight just so that people can eat that day.”
David’s daily routine is about “helping the people and organising the food”, while recovering from the restless nights of having to sleep outside on damp, overgrown grass. Other than acting as washing lines and recreation space, the property’s tennis courts have to serve as places of rest. “Sometimes we have to sleep in the bathroom or on the tennis courts because there are not enough mattresses,” explained David and his friend Petros, also from Mozambique.
“It has not rained yet since I’ve been here. I don’t know what’s going to happen when it rains.” Mothers and fathers, while the fear of possible death and the confusion of being disenfranchised are etched on their tired faces, entertain children who, thankfully, are unaware of what’s going on. Children laugh and parents find joy in their reactions.
A few metres away, a mother lies on her mattress cuddling her newborn. Young men clothed in blood-stained T-shirts, slip-slops and beanies, stroll through the masses of mattresses nursing what is currently the best part of their day: a polystyrene cup of hot tea. They join friends who are playing card games, while some join three young men who have set up a television set. They look intently at the screen, almost as if they are back in the comfort of their own homes. Young Somalis have taken to selling apples and oranges.
The little girl in the pink jacket plays and giggles on.
* None of the refugees we spoke to wanted to give their surnames