Zimbabwe: When people become ping-pong balls of politics

By Tinotenda Sibanda

“If Zimbabwe had everything in such abundance as it has migrants, we would not have any problems,” a local analyst said the other day . There is some sad truth in this statement. It’s, however, not because Zimbabwe hosts a large number of migrants who may regard the country in southern Africa as a wonderful destination. But because up to a quarter of Zimbabwe’s current day population has left the country.

Zimbabwe, the country that used to be the obnoxious British and self proclaimed semi-independent colony of Rhodesia, has been a migration hotspot for most of its traceable history of more than a thousand years. And for most of these centuries and decades, Zimbabwe — which had shortly after its independence from British and white minority rule in 1980 also been dubbed “Breadbasket of Africa” due to its booming economy — has been the classic immigration country. Only in recent years, when the metaphorical ‘bread basket’ emptied rapidly and the economy plummeted into an abyss, this pattern has changed significantly. What used to be a popular immigration destination has turned into an unseen exodus of Zimbabweans over the past 30 years, peaking only a few years ago at the height of an economic crisis unseen before. The current situation is characterised by significant brain drain and irregular emigration flows, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Whilst migration is globally and generally a common, even natural phenomenon, it is remarkable how migration from current (and fairly recent) day Zimbabwe, as well as internal displacement, has been caused by politics and politicians. There is a magnitude of data and figures about Zimbabwean migration and displacement — whilst utterly important, a face, and a fate, lies behind these figures. Finding the ‘faces’ was easier than capturing them. None of the people I spoke to were willing to have their photos published. People are afraid. The Zimbabwean Government, which stands accused of being responsible for many of these individual tragedies, still spreads fear and trepidation. For this reason, their faces will hence remain faceless.

Trevor. 51. Commercial farmer. White.

I almost did not recognise Trevor (name changed on request) when we finally meet again in a Harare coffee shop a few weeks ago. We hadn’t seen each other for more than six years and had been in contact sporadically over social media. He used to be a big man; some may have called him fat. He lost a quarry of stones, it seems. He looks good. He looks gaunt nevertheless.

A white farmers’ wife, Pippa van Rechteren, shelters her twin daughters Catherine and Elizabeth from Zimbabwe war veterans threatening to invade their Chiripiro farm 180 km north of Harare violently in March 2000. The van Rechteren family was forced off their farm shortly thereafter.

Trevor has come home from Zambia for a visit. His mother, suffering from dementia, is living in a mediocre old age home in Harare. His father passed away during ‘those days’, as Trevor calls them. He wouldn’t have left Zimbabwe, had there been a chance to avoid it. But there was none.

Robert Mugabe’s land reform programme was meant to reallocate land from mostly white-owned, profitable, commercial farms to poor, landless and previously disadvantaged Zimbabweans surviving on subsistence farming. But in reality, it only benefited those ‘big-wigs’ in the corrupt vicinity of President Robert Mugabe. And it ruthlessly extinguished an initial population of over 6000 white farmers, who helped to turn the country into the breadbasket of Africa. Agriculture contributed to more than half of Zimbabwe’s GDP at better times.

“We were told to leave within two months”

Trevor’s farm was one of the first to be targeted by Mugabe’s government. It was beautiful, fertile and close to Harare. And it was meant to be given to a then Minister. “I will never forget that very day we received the letter. Government wrote to us that our farm had been gazetted for resettlement and relocation, which basically means expropriation without compensation. We were told to leave within two months. My parents’ life, my life, all our assets are in this farm. We worked sweat, blood and tears to develop it over decades. We did not want to have it stolen from us — as we paid to turn it into what it is. We would have eventually agreed to sell parts of it to someone who would continue the legacy, but we most certainly did not want to give it to someone who neither had any idea of farming, nor any respect for the land or our workers”, says Trevor.

Trevor had been a very successful farmer in Zimbabwe for years. He was very involved in the development and modernisation of farming technologies and farmers’ organisations. He is second-generation Zimbabwean. His parents emigrated from England in the 1950s. They were part of that third wave of white immigrants that swept thousands of demobilised British soldiers into Rhodesia. The migrants were given land there. ‘Given’ sounds amicable, but it disguises the fact that the (local) black population was forcefully removed from a number of areas to create space.

White immigration peaked around 1975 at 296,000 before a steep decline just before and right after Independence in 1980. (Remarkably, the white population in then Rhodesia was never higher than about 5%). But two thirds of all whites (but only one third of all commercial white farmers) had left the country by 1985. They feared for the future of their glorified, or at least, pleasant Rhodesia under black rule. The latest census in 2012 revealed a further drastic decline to 28,732 white people. That is about 40% less than in 2002. The number of white farmers, most of whom had remained in Zimbabwe after Independence, reportedly declined from 6000 to 250 in 2008. And their farms were subsequently invaded. Recent comments by President Mugabe and members of his regime suggest that the eviction of the remaining farmers is imminent.

Home in a new, yet the same country

Trevor’s family had stayed in Rhodesia because it had become home to them, “and we were committed to make Zimbabwe the new home”, Trevor says. The newly elected President Robert Mugabe had embraced the diversity of race in his speech on Independence Day and welcomed all Whites under the new national roof. For many whites, the transition was nevertheless unbearable, as they lost certain perks such as free education, free healthcare and other benefits previously granted to them.

Trevor’s family seemingly adapted quite well. Their farm is located in the fertile areas south of the capital Harare. And over the years they developed it into a leading fruit exporter to southern African and European markets. Trevor’s eyes shimmer suspiciously when he remembers those days — and his childhood: holidays in the bush, sailing on the magnificent Lake Kariba, the thrill of war. (“We were kids, we didn’t understand. We only noticed that dad was away, and we used to play war against the ‘gooks’ and ‘terrs’”, he says, referring to denigrating terms for black liberation fighters).

He is quick to state that his family has been good to their hitherto 1200 farmworkers: “We built houses for them and made sure they got medical supplies. We also had a clinic and a school for their children on the farm.” This is something I have noticed in many white people, especially white farmers: the unquestioned urge to assure others, and themselves, that their families were good people. There is no question that a good number of white people knew that their man-created inequality between black and white was intrinsically wrong. (Yes, there was a shocking number of blunt racists too). But there is no question that many white people, often farmers, treated their workers quite well, granting them housing, free schooling and free medical aid. However, there is also no question that white people remained comfortably quiet about these well-known injustices because it benefitted them — a symptom that is observed in present day Zimbabwe with its corrupt political elite, too.

Trevor got a very good education — like many white people of his age. His first school was in what was then Rhodesia then later he moved to an agricultural college in South Africa, which prepared him to take over what his parents had created. The landlord-to-be returned home in the early 1990s and became boss of the enterprise. Things were still going well, although the economy had slowed down, and Robert Mugabe had stopped his warm words towards whites. A vast number of Zimbabweans got increasingly tired of the corrupt and self-enriching misrule and some of the white farmers helped fund an upcoming opposition party called Movement for Democratic Change led by unionist Morgan Tsvangirai. Trevor hadn’t anticipated that this would be yet another nail in his ‘coffin’ as a farmer.

In 2002, a few months after Trevor’s family received ‘that letter’, informing them of their imminent expulsion. They went down the legal route and fought in vain to prevent the inevitable expropriation from their land — which was probably never theirs. As expected — Zimbabwe’s judiciary system was then, sometimes is now, biased; judges are hand picked by Mugabe and kept in line with perks such as free commercial farms and other benefits.

Beaten, arrested, forsaken

Shortly after Trevor’s family had appealed in vain against yet another ruling from the High Court, scores of violent, machete-wielding, young, drunk and frustrated mobs from the ruling party, Zanu-PF, invaded the farm. “They came on a Saturday afternoon. Most of them had machetes, but one had a pistol”, Trevor recalls. They attacked his mother first, who was on her way back to the farmhouse after feeding the calves. “Who beats up an old woman of 71? Her lower arms were broken — and she always said that their dirty laughter was much worse than the pain in her arm.”

The mob proceeded towards the house; and only retreated when Trevor’s father fired his gun twice. From then on, they would come back more often, harassing, intimidating, attacking Trevor and his family. It climaxed in a late-night beating of him, his mother and his father in the yard — with timing belts on their naked backs and with sticks on their naked feet. On Trevor’s right shoulder, the scar of a timing belt-inflicted wound is prominently visible. After the brutal attack, they marched into the farmhouse and decided to stay. “When we finally made it to the police in the morning they said they can not help us,” Trevor laments as his forehead crumples. Moments later Trevor and his father were arrested, “for whatever nonsense they had made up that day”. It was only one of many nights Trevor had to spend locked up at a local police station.

Trevor gave up after his father, an ex-British soldier, succumbed to a heart attack in the height of the nightly attacks (Trevor says: “At least it was at home, not in some filthy prison cell where 40 people are held in a room designed for eight.”). That very night, Trevor left the farm with his mother, a nephew who came to mourn Trevor’s father, and two pick-ups full of their belongings. In short, they left like thieves. “We left behind our lives. Achievements, failures, our money, our commitment, our hearts.”

Trevor and his family were in the middle of nowhere, without anything — not even a sense of belonging. His mother never got over the events of 2003. Her health deteriorated very quickly — maybe, says Trevor, that is her way to forget the glorious past that ended so painfully. Trevor admits that he also lived in denial. He kept on fighting (with legal weapons) for his farm even though there was no fight to be won. His marriage was on the edge. His wife struggled to come to terms with the fact that she was no longer the First Lady of a farm. Eventually, Trevor noticed that he would slip into some state of depression and bankruptcy if he didn’t pick himself up. One of his friends had recently moved to Zambia, some others to Tanzania and one to Nigeria. These countries welcomed Zimbabwean farmers, renowned for their productivity, with open arms. When he hit rock bottom in his life, he decided to go, leave home, and live better elsewhere.

Greener pastures in Zambia

Trevor now manages a farm in Mkushi in central Zambia, a lush area, popular for its maize production. Even critics had to concede that the influx of white Zimbabwean farmers in Zambia has resulted in almost revolutionary developments, as they brought along sophisticated methods and technologies. Initial fears on the Zambian side that the whites from Zimbabwe may only seek to import racism to the other side of the Zambezi have long been alleviated. Many Zimbabweans entered into partnerships with local landowners at first and were later given land — something absolutely impossible in Zimbabwe. Commercial banks have invested into the new farmers by means of funds that also benefitted local landowners. By now, Trevor is one of those Zambian farmers whose maize is exported to starving Zimbabwe. “I don’t know if this ought to make me gloat with satisfaction or break down in tears. What has become of Zimbabwe?”

‘Home’ is a difficult concept for Trevor. Yes, he says ‘I am coming home’ when returning to Zimbabwe to see his mother, whose memories and ability to recognise him is fading; or when he meets up with former friends, fellow farmers, a few ex-farmers and farm workers, who all lost their jobs when he was booted off the farm: “I am so endlessly sorry for them. They were hardworking, good men. Whilst I can at least feed my family, many of them live in absolute poverty or have left the country to make a few pennies elsewhere. I am still meeting with Lazarus, one of my foremen, when I get here, trying to help him get his kids through school. He lives on less than a dollar a day from some mediocre subsistence farming.” Coming home is rather a dream than a realistic future for Trevor and hundreds of other white farmers who could — if wanted — help the Government ease the dreadful and possibly deadly effects of a drought that destroyed huge amounts of the crops: “I sometimes dream that things will become better, turn around again, and I could come back here, Lazarus could have a proper job, and my mother would get proper medical treatment. But I know this won’t happen. And Zambia slowly starts feeling like home for me.”

As Trevor finishes his coffee, he tells me about mutual acquaintances. An Afrikaans-speaking family, dairy farmers; their business was Iocated in the very same area as Trevor’s farm. They had tried to make all kinds of deals with the new owner from Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party and were staying on their land when I last spoke to them before our contact rapidly diminished. Trevor confirmed that they were finally kicked off again in the latest wave of farm invasions in their province. They won’t be the last ones to be driven off. The job gets easier for those who have vicious motives. A maximum of 250 farmers are still somehow holding on to their land. With the President’s recent xenophobic remarks about Whites (see above), and the utterances of provincial Mugabe-loyal politicians, the complete extinction of the concept ‘white farmer’ is probably just a matter of time.

Kenneth. 56. Ex-soldier. Internally displaced person.

Kenneth N. looks utterly exhausted. He is a former soldier, a tough veteran of the even tougher liberation struggle of local Zimbabwean population against the white racist government. He had an unwavering mind. Today, Kenneth looks weak, thin, his shoulders sagging. The 56 year-old man has lost everything that he had carefully built: his house, his livelihood, his subsistence farming business, equipment, tools, chickens, goats, his maize harvest and his belief. Kenneth, who describes himself as “homeless, landless, and destitute with no reason to live”, is one of a minimum of 20,000 people (the figures are between 20,000 and arguably 60,000) who were affected when the Tokwe-Mukorsi Dam broke and flooded the Masvingo area of Zimbabwe in January 2014. Kenneth and other villagers lived in that area and the flood left them as internally displaced persons (IDP).

This turned into a tragedy of chilling extent, and until this day, people still rumour that Robert Mugabe’s government had a hand in the dreadful happenings, or probably even initiated it. Whilst proof for these allegations will be eternally outstanding, Human Rights Watch concluded that the government had most certainly failed in its responsibility to help the people that were left destitute by the flooding. There are various reports how these utterly poor villagers were relocated and ill-treated numerous times. A ping-pong ball of politics.

A human tragedy in filth and mud

Human Rights Watch narrates the sad details in their latest report: After the area was flooded, the Government decided to relocate 20,000 villagers to Chingwizi Transit Camp nearby, a filthy area in which each family was given exactly one tent with only one room, no matter the family size. Whilst in that transit camp, more and more voices erupted claiming that the devastating floods were indeed deliberately induced to forcibly evict people with the help of soldiers, without compensation and hire them as low-paid workers on a farm growing sugarcane for ethanol production, a venture jointly-owned by President Robert Mugabe’s party and a prominent (or rather notorious) white businessman and ruling party supporter. In April, a cabinet minister warned the refugees that they would not get any humanitarian assistance or food if they kept resisting their relocation to the sugarcane plantation, Nuanetsi Ranch. The Transit Camp was a place of no hope and impending diseases such as cholera. Dirty, filthy, muddy, no adequate water supply, no food, no future. Blankets, food, water and other donated goods were allegedly sold in nearby towns for profit instead of given to the ailing refugees. ‘You can not imagine how humiliating it is to wash and ablute [bathe] in the bush where other people have defecated before. Your clothes disintegrate, your tents disintegrate, and your willpower disintegrates as well. Is that really what we and our fathers fought for during Chimurenga (the local word for the liberation war)?”

A pile of personal property left in the open at the Chingwizi transit camp. Hundreds of families lost their property during their relocation to the camp.

Kenneth confirms that shortly after the flooding and with relocation imminent, the villagers were promised five-hectare plots and the right to grow crops of their liking. However, in reality every family, no matter how big, was to be given only one hectare on Nuanetsi Ranch — and they would be forced to grow sugarcane. When the Government moved the only rural clinic from the Chingwizi Transit Camp toward Nuanetsi Ranch to coerce the villagers onto their designated land, they ran amok against the state security agents. In the wake of the violence, dozens of people were arrested, including an 84 year-old man, some toddlers and pregnant women. After months of legal battle — the villagers were free of charge represented by Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, who provided me with information and contacts — there was a tiny victory: The accused villagers were acquitted — apart from four, who were jailed for five years. Their lawyers are appealing their convictions and sentences, but the Zimbabwean justice system can be painstakingly slow and unjust. In the meantime, the Government forcibly shut down the camp and moved people to the ranch and their tiny plots.

“I never imagined I would stoop that low”

Kenneth was lucky — he was not arrested. “I was too frustrated to fight, too weak to fight. On the other hand: it wouldn’t have made a difference either.” Kenneth is now on his one-hectare plot where he is supposed to grow sugar cane, which means nothing to him. He looks like a man deeply depressed and disillusioned. “The tent I was given by the donors has worn out. There is no toilet. I am living in a makeshift hut. I never imagined I would stoop that low.” From a liberation war veteran to an internally displaced person — quite a decline.

While Human Rights Watch presented further evidence for the Government’s responsibility for the flooding, it is clear that the Government will never take such responsibility. However, its handling of the crisis undoubtedly leaves many more questions unanswered. Two days after I interviewed Kenneth for the first time, news broke that there was yet another cholera outbreak in the camp. And everyone who always thought that the Government had some hand in this saw himself proven right: The new provincial minister, a product of an intra-party fight, announced that the villagers will have to move one more time — to yet another area called Chiumburu Farm in Chiredzi. Asked for a comment, Kumbirai Mafunda from Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said: “The worrying part of this latest twist is that those traumatised people are being moved once again to places without any structures and other amenities and without being given resources to construct structures. After all, some of them have not even been fully compensated for being displaced from Tokwe-Mukorsi. Those who were, have used those resources to buy food — because food aid was discontinued last year.

Operation Murambatsvina: Government runs amok against its citizens

That Robert Mugabe’s government lacks respect for people in need or human rights is not new in Zimbabwe. Ten years ago, a much bigger and more violent campaign had driven thousands into an abyss of homelessness and despair. The operation was dubbed Operation Murambatsvina — the Shona word for ‘Clean out the Mess’. The government claimed that this operation was meant to destroy huts in slums across the country to reduce illegal housing and health hazards. The operation was believed to be instigated by the ruling Zanu-PF party and assisted by the police. The government employed huge machinery, which it used to destroy huts, shops and other buildings, including the inhabitants’ belongings initially in urban and later in rural commercial farm areas. The displaced people often had to sleep in the open, despite horrid winter temperatures. Humanitarian aid trickled in and were often hindered by agents of the government or the ruling party, Zanu-PF. There were reports of people walking 50 kilometres a day — often without food — just to get to work. These reports shocked fellow Zimbabweans and the international community alike.

Brute force: A bulldozer destroys a house in Chitungwiza, about 30km south of Harare, as part of Mugabe’s government clean-up campaign named Operation Murambatsvina

A study by the non-governmental organisation Action Aid found that, in the six urban centres they analysed (a limited area of the country), nearly 1.2 million people were affected by this operation, UN Habitat suggested in 2005 that up to 2.4 million people (18% of the population) could have suffered from it. The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum reported that about 323,500 people had been displaced. Local and international civil society organisations criticised the Government for its precipitate, excessive and unnecessarily harsh action, which lasted several months. There are serious doubts about the true reasons for this brutal campaign. NGOs, churches, legal organisations and other civil society groups as well as the MDC vehemently criticised the operation, of which they believe it was a retaliatory crackdown on the opposition — happening only weeks after highly contested elections that many still believe would have been won by the MDC. Urban areas and commercial farmland were huge strongholds for the change-seeking party.

The Government dismissed a highly critical report by the United Nations. It claimed that the actions were in the public interest, denied that it was responsible for the deaths of several people during the clean-up operation, and was carried out in compliance with the government’s laws, and criticised the report for using what it says is value-laden and judgemental language, which clearly demonstrated in-built bias against it and the operation.

A young child looking at what is left of his house in Porta Farm, west of Harare, after the Zimbabwean government razed it in 2005 as part of “Operation Murambatsvina”, a campaign to eliminate “illegal” structures and shantytowns. Photo: AP

Kenneth N., the displaced war veteran from the Tokwe-Mukorsi area, sums up what many of his fellow sufferers think: “What kind of Government moves people three times in such a short time? The use of police to forcibly move us evokes memories of the colonial period when the police would ruthlessly enforce orders to deny the people land. I can’t stand this anymore.”

Thompson M. 49. Driver. Alien.

“I have never been so disappointed in my whole life,” says Thompson M. The slender 49 year-old shakes his head, nearly two years after his pivotal experience: On Jul 31, 2013, Thompson was turned away from the ballot box in Zimbabwe’s parliamentary and presidential elections.He was born in Zimbabwe and was registered as a national of the country, but His father is from Malawi. That was the alienating truth for thousands of Zimbabweans on Election Day. The descendants of the vast Zimbabwean populations with ‘migration background’, as European politicians sometimes say, were excluded from casting their ballots. Even more annoying for them: Zimbabwe’s new constitution that came into place only months before the election grants people born in Zimbabwe citizenship by birth — as it had been from Independence in 1980 until 2001, when Robert Mugabe’s Government amended the Citizenship Act and forced those born of alien parents to renounce their foreign citizenship. He was frantically afraid of oppositional tendencies among citizens with foreign ancestry.

A police officer controls documents of Zimbabweans who are queueing to cast their vote in the parliamentary and presidential elections on 31 July 2013. Many people, amongst them Thompson, had waited in the queues for hours on the cold winter day, only to be turned away by the authorities.

Thompson had no other citizenship to renounce. He became stateless, but with a resident identification document for Zimbabwe that classifies him as ‘Alien’ with a huge red ‘A’ printed on it, and remained so until the country’s new Constitution, passed in April 2013, theoretically restored his status as a Zimbabwean. “However,” Thompson claims, “Robert Mugabe was once again in panic mode and demonstrated that he does not have and does not need respect for a people-written constitution.” His government, through various agencies and agents, made it virtually impossible for aliens like Thompson to register as voters. Insiders from his party say that Mugabe was still convinced people with foreign roots would tend to support the opposition, so they had to be weeded out. Their number was significant: In one of the latest surveys in 2000, the General Agriculture and Plantation Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe (GAPWUZ) estimated that up to 105,000 of the around 350,000 farm workers had foreign-born ancestry.

A popular destination for workers

Since the 20th century in Zimbabwe has seen an influx of migrant labour to the country, which is classified as voluntary migration. The local Zimbabwean population was often quite reluctant to work in the emerging farming businesses or in the mines, because they were self sustaining and didn’t need (or want) to take on these hard labour jobs. Cheap labour for the emerging businesses was recruited from countries such as Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia. In the 1960s, as reported by scholar Alois Mlambo, these mostly male workers were allowed to bring their families and settle. This led to an increase in immigration from neighbouring countries. Foreign-born workers made up to 62% of the workers in commercial agriculture in 1951.

Thompson is the model of a true Zimbabwean. Nothing distinguished him from other ‘pure race’ Zimbabweans. His Shona has no accent. He is respected in his community and the school development committee of his son’s primary school in the outskirts of Harare, at which Thompson also teaches Shona theatre and poetry. Thompson makes sure he reads the newspapers every day, and he has an eloquent opinion about politics, the economy and social happenings. He is pragmatic, not an ideological supporter of the opposition, but “oh yes, I would have voted for them”.

“In my whole life,” says Thompson, “I have never been so homeless. If my government prohibits me from being a Zimbabwean, where must I go? I have never been to Malawi, and don’t want to be there. I thought I was Zimbabwean. So my home is suddenly not home anymore?”

Tawanda. 31. Waiter. Economic refugee.

For Tawanda, a qualified nurse, the hardships had simply become too much. On a rainy, but mild November morning in 2007, he boarded a bus in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare. The bus took him to Johannesburg, the capital of neighbouring South Africa. Tawanda had one rugged travel bag on him, his cell phone, an old mp3 player, and a lunch pack which had sadza and ‘maBonzo (stewed beef bones) — a lingering taste of home. At the border, Tawanda claimed to be a visitor. But he planned to overstay his visit for years before he saw ZImbabwean soil again.

Tawanda was just one of the hundreds of thousands of people that fled Zimbabwe, leading to the biggest exodus the country has ever seen in its history. The increasingly volatile economic situation from the year 2000 onwards and the consequent deterioration of living standards, in terms of health, education and social services, left people so destitute that they saw no other option than fleeing their homes. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the gross domestic product of Zimbabwe — the former breadbasket of Africa — declined by 47% between 2000 and 2007. And inflation rose to a world record high of 231 million percent in 2001. This led to drastic shortages in basic commodities such as fuel, food, clean water, medical drugs, and others. Cholera riddled the country, causing a major epidemic with nearly 5000 victims. The government vehemently denied the epidemic in 2008, before then claiming it was ’caused by Britain’.

The exodus of millions

In addition, the country saw highly contested elections in 2002, 2005 and in 2008 — with independent observers believing that the opposition was time and again cheated out of their victories. A wave of political persecution swept over the land that increased the hardship — and the willingness to flee. In general, Zimbabweans with better educational standards, qualifications and connections left for the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States and also South Africa. Poor Zimbabweans had hardly any options. Most of them made their way to South Africa — and many of them did so illegally, crossing a thorny border fence and the crocodile-infested Limpopo river to get to freedom. (The influx of Zimbabweans into South Africa was the largest concentrated flow of immigrants in South African history, according to the Southern African Migration Project). Zimbabweans will never forget the tragic pictures of their fellow countrymen being preyed on by crocodiles or stuck in barbed wire.

A Zimbabwean woman with her baby on her back is trying to cross the barbed wire on the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa. Thousands of people fled the former breadbasket of Africa at the height of the economic crisis and amid political turmoil between 2002 and 2009.

Figures about this human tragedy are contested. It is suggested that probably a quarter of all Zimbabweans may be living out of the country. Conservative estimates suggest that the true number of Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa alone is around 1.5 million. Since many of those are illegal immigrants, statistics will never picture the reality truthful. Recent xenophobic attacks in Durban and Johannesburg may excite some Zimbabweans back home, just as it did in similar violent encounters in 2008. But the majority of Zimbabwean immigrants would rather live in fear in South Africa than in poverty at home.

Tawanda is one of them, and when he was recently in Harare for one of his rare visits, I had a chance to speak to him.

These are four men with four different stories. They have all been deprived of their homes — or their feeling of being at home — by political interference, coercion, and despotic arbitrariness. Tawanda is certain that things will not change as long as the current political situation remains the same . In his new home in South Africa, violent and deadly xenophobic attacks have broken loose. Black South Africans attack African foreigners, including Zimbabweans, with machetes, knives, iron bars, and stones. So far, at least seven people have been killed. Is this not a reason for Tawanda to return home? “No,” he says with his eyes start gazing into the distance. “Being here and hated is still better than being jobless, homeless and useless in Zimbabwe.”

Originally published at migrantsstory.wordpress.com on April 23, 2015.