South Africa's president calls attacks on immigrants shameful
President Mbeki says end 'attacks against Africans' and welcome them back home. But a police raid on a transit camp sends another message.
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Judging from the mood at a transit camp for migrants north of Tshwane, as Pretoria is now called, few migrants would return to their former homes and businesses anyway without assurances for their safety.Skip to next paragraph
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On Saturday, violent clashes between camp dwellers – most of them Somalis, Ethiopians, Eritreans, and Congolese – and local police left dozens injured when police used clubs and fired rubber bullets to bring a restive crowd under control. Tensions rose, camp dwellers say, after a policeman demanded cigarette from a camp dweller, and when he was refused, he insisted on searching the boy for drugs.
More police were called in to search the camp for weapons, but when police entered a tent that had been designated as a mosque, camp dwellers pushed them out, and the violence began. Camp dwellers say that three persons – one Ethiopian and two Somalis – were killed during the Saturday raid, but pol ice took away their bodies. Police confirm only that some of the camp dwellers were injured.
"I am encouraged to see the situation is under control," Tshwane Executive Mayor Gwen Ramokgopa told a community meeting after the police raid. She said the raid occurred after a female police officer was "held hostage" within the camp, a charge the camp dwellers deny.
"For 15 years, Somalis have been killed in robberies, their shops burnt, but the government did nothing," says Abdul Abbas, a spokesman for the Somali community in the camp. "Then when the xenophobic attacks started, they did nothing again. They saved our lives, but they did nothing to save our shops. Then they bring us here, and now the police are fighting us. We are fed up."
Yitbarak, a young Somali whose shop in a Johannesburg township was burned by angry mobs 23 days ago, says that conditions in the camp are abysmal, that it's not safe to leave. "The government says they are going to protect us, but it is the police who are attacking us," he says. "The police tell us, 'Go home, this is not your country. This is South Africa.' "
Elmi Hissa, an elderly Somali shopkeeper, says that she has been robbed more times than she can remember in the past 10 years, and each time moved to a different community – from Johannesburg to Durban to Cape Town to Kimberly to Pretoria – in the hopes that the local people would accept her once they got to know her.
"For 10 years I was patient, but now I'm tired," she sighs.
"You struggle hard, you work hard, and after that people take it from you. You go to police and they say, why don't you go to your own country?" The reason she doesn't go back, she says, is that there's a war in Somalia that has already claimed seven of her children. "Sometimes I think until I cry," she says. "South Africa is not the place to stay anymore. You can't stay with people who don't want you."
Lukmaan Abdullah, a young Somali clothing salesman, fled Somalia just two months ago, when warlords came to take him as a soldier. His parents sold the house they were living in in order to pay for his transportation to South Africa, hoping the young man would be able to make enough money to help the family survive.
The day he arrived, however, the xenophobic attacks began, and Mr. Abdullah has spent the past 23 days in this camp. "When I left Somalia, the rockets were hitting the market where I worked. When I came here, the xenophobic attacks had just started. If I go back now, there will be no other way but to work with the warlords. They will force me, without a doubt."