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.

Ian Evans
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
Blue Waters camp: home for nearly 400 refugees.

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.

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.

"We don't know what to do. We can't go back to Congo because I will be put in jail, but we can't go back to Samora Machel because they will kill us. We are stuck here."

Too dangerous to leave the camps?

Zam Zam Ibrahim fled Somalia's civil war in 2005 seeking a more peaceful life in South Africa. One year ago, she fled her home in Cape Town's Khayelitsha township with her husband, Ahmed, and two children amid shouts of "makwerekwere" – a slur now used to insult black African foreigners. Neighbors armed with machetes burned and looted their shop.

She is still reluctant to move out of the Blue Waters camp. Eight months ago her aunt and three children did relocate to Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, egged on by government mediators. Her aunt opened a shop, but three weeks later all four were killed by a mob.

John Kwigwasa, from Congo, was stabbed and chased out of Samora Machel township last May. When he tried to return in February after being encouraged by officials, he was shot in the leg by four men.

"They told us to go back home and stop taking our jobs," says Virginia Malebo, a mother of two, also from Congo. "We had to run for our lives. They said: 'You're lucky, your kids are supposed to die.' "

Move to close camp postponed ... for now

While most refugees suffer great hardships at the Blue Waters camp, it is at least safe from outside mobs. In a perverse irony, Blue Waters is a normally a popular holiday campground in the summer months situated next to a long white sandy beach with stunning views over False Bay and the Drakenstein Mountains.

Last Tuesday, the city council had an application to close the camp postponed after opposition from lawyers for the refugees. It was adjourned until next month.

Council officials have already demolished a number of wooden shacks, despite the recent poor winter weather, and are determined to close the site and reintegrate the 397 mostly Somali and Congolese residents back into the community.

City housing director Hans Smit says the refugees were told last October they were to leave the camp. He said over 20,000 displaced people had already been reintegrated into various communities but the Blue Waters group had "steadfastly refused to move."

Duncan Breen at the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa says reintegration is the only option. "I understand the reluctance of people to return to their previous homes after what happened, but it's probably the only way. They don't necessarily have to go back to their previous homes, maybe nearer the urban centers where they can feel safer. But staying in camps indefinitely can't happen."

In the meantime, the residents sit in their tents and wonder what the future will bring.

"I can't leave, but I don't want to stay," says Mrs. Malebo. "It is hard here – it's cold, no electricity, no food. I had flu for two months." She has contemplated ending her life, but says her husband reminds her: 'No, what about the children?' We are stuck here."

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