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Refugees fight to stay in one of South Africa's last, battered camps

Congolese and Somali migrants forced to flee their homes during last year's brutal anti-foreigner violence say it's too dangerous for them to leave the Blue Waters camp near Cape Town.

By Ian EvansCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 31, 2009

Cleophash Sewika (far right) and his wife, Vanel (in pink sweater), live with their six children in the Blue Waters refugee camp near Cape Town, South Africa. The Congolese family was chased out of their home in a nearby township during the anti-foreigner violence that displaced more than 60,000 last May.

Ian Evans

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Cape Town, South Africa

In this tourist haven, arguably the most cosmopolitan city on the African continent, around 400 men, women, and children live in battered tents reliant on handouts – a legacy of last year's xenophobic violence that left 62 dead and forced more than 60,000 from their homes across South Africa.

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A year ago, angry mobs targeted foreigners living in townships throughout the country with a brutal, two-week barrage of attacks. Most of the victims were immigrants who had fled poverty and calamity in neighboring countries such as Zimbabwe and Mozambique for the relative security and prosperity of South Africa, only to find themselves hated for "stealing" jobs from poor South Africans.

Initially, the government put those forced to flee their homes into temporary camps, which have gradually been closed as victims either go back to the townships or return to their native countries.

Now lawyers for Somali and Congolese refugees are staving off local government efforts to close one of the country's last remaining camps near Cape Town. It's still too dangerous to leave the Blue Waters camp and return to the townships, they say. And in the shadow of Table Mountain and the surfing beaches of the Cape Peninsula, residents recount stories of violence, rape, and concern about the future.

Reluctant to return to shacks where many faced death last May, the refugees want to stay put, but the city council wants them out and has gone to court to seek an eviction order.

That worries Cleophash Sewika, a father of six and political activist who fled the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo three years ago.

Until last May, he lived in the city's Capricorn township, working as a security guard.

"On May 22, [angry South Africans] sent letters to foreigners saying we would be killed if we did not leave," he says. "On the 23rd, the men went door-to-door looking for us shouting, it was very frightening."

In the violence, he says, his wife, Vanel, had acid poured on her head and he was beaten.

After being sent to several camps, they arrived at Blue Waters seven months ago. Since then, he says, his 12-year-old daughter, Sera, has been raped and his 16-year-old son, Rais, has been chased out of a nearby school at knifepoint by three pupils.

His neighbor Baco Badeawaghi, a former soldier who fled the Congo in 2003 after refusing to take part in atrocities, has similar tales of woe.

He and his wife, Bijoux, and their 18-month-old daughter, Jossy, lived in the Samora Machel township.

"I woke up at 4 a.m. to go to work on the 22nd and I was attacked in the street, stabbed in the back," he says. "They then went around shouting, 'We will kill you, we will kill you.' We lost everything."

In addition, his daughter's hand was burned, and his wife got an abortion after getting raped, he adds.

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