Right on the border between South Africa and Mozambique, just outside the one-horse town of Komatipoort, is a dry and dusty village called Mangweni. At first it looks very unfriendly, almost like a desert. It is hot and the dust makes it hard to breathe.
But it does not take you long to find out that the people who live there are special. They are very poor — but they show great kindness to others, especially those who are poorer than themselves.
In the past few years, the people of Mangweni have opened their homes and their hearts to refugees from Mozambique. Mangweni is just one of the villages in the homeland of Ka-Ngwane which has become a home for thousands of people who have left Mozambique because of the war.
HUNGRY AND HALF-NAKED
Our first stop was at a small office next to the only clinic in the village. This is where hungry Mozambican refugees are welcomed by the Red Cross and the Catholic Church, who help them to apply for a permit to stay in Ka-Ngwane. They are then given a bag of mealie meal and soup by Operation Hunger.
After that they are given a check-up in the clinic, and those with wounds are washed and bandaged. Refugees who are very sick or badly wounded are taken to the Shongwe Mission Hospital. We found many refugees sitting down under the trees, waiting for their turn and looking sad and lost. They had all arrived that day from Mozambique: 142 refugees in only one day!
Some were ill or in pain, and all were hungry. They were sharing loaves of bread bought with the last of their money or given to them by the villagers. Most of them did not have shoes. They were half naked, as their clothes had been torn or lost on their way from Mozambique.
A FLIGHT FROM HELL
We spoke to more than 50 refugees in the area of Mangweni. All of them had horrific stories to tell. We listened as they told us of their husbands, wives, brothers, sisters and loved ones who were mutilated, raped and killed by the Mozambican National Resistance (MNR, or Renamo, as they are also called).
Most of them had spent more than two days in the bush, walking only at night and hiding during the day, before they reached safety.
The road they take is a dangerous one. Only the lucky ones arrive safely in Ka-Ngwane. Some are caught by Renamo and killed or tortured. Sometimes their ears, noses or lips are cut off. Sometimes they stand on landmines near the border, and suffer terrible injuries or even death.
Their troubles are not over when they reach the border. Those who cross in the north have to face the dangerous wild animals of the Kruger National Park. Those who cross in the south have to find their way over or under the “snake of fire’ — the deadly electric fence which the South African government has built to stop the flow of refugees.
A doctor at Shongwe Mission Hospital told us that many are badly burnt when they cross the fence, and the injuries are sometimes so bad that an arm or a leg has to be cut off.
WELCOME’ TO SOUTH AFRICA
If they manage to cross the border they still have to make sure that they are not seen by the SADF on the South African side of the border. If a patrol sees refugees crossing, they will catch them and send them back.
Sometimes they are not sent back — like the story of two refugees who were caught by an SADF patrol in February. They were locked in a metal tank and left in the sun all day. When the soldiers opened the tank, one of the refugees was dead. The other died a few days later at Shongwe Hospital. The SAP say they are investigating two counts of murder. The SADF are also investigating the matter.
Other refugees are asked if they want to fight for Renamo. One man told us that three men at Komatipoort police station tried to force him to join Renamo. Luckily, they discovered that he was too old, and he was just sent back to Mozambique.
What happens to those “lucky” ones who make it safely to the villages in Ka-Ngwane?
The first problem is finding a place to stay. They go around the villages looking for a roof to cover their heads. Then they have to try and find work.
But in Ka-Ngwane, like all other homelands, there is little work. So the refugees are forced to work for the white farmers in the area. Because the refugees are illegal and do not have work permits, the farmers pay them very little. A refugee may earn as little as R1 a day — others get no pay, but just a plate of food and a place to stay.
Some of the refugees do not stay. They miss their families and loved ones who were left behind. One man, whose fingers had been cut off by Renamo, went back to Mozambique to look for his family, with both his hands bandaged. Nobody knows if he ever found his family — or if he is still alive today!
NEW WORDS one-horse town — a very small town refugees — people who leave their country, mainly because of war or hunger horrific stories — terrible, frightening stories mutilate — to hurt somebody very badly, so that the wound will be seen for the rest of their lives landmine — a bomb which is hidden under the ground, and explodes when somebody steps on it