Robert Mugabe won Zimbabwe’s June 27th presidential run-off by a “landslide”, tallying 85% of the popular vote, yet nearly three months earlier he accumulated less than 43%.  Either Mugabe figured out the most amazing campaign strategy, or he endorsed the arrest, beating, torture and killing of MDC supporters.  What’s frightening is that in the minds of Mugabe and the Zimbabwean politburo, it appears the two possibilities are one in the same.  This article from the Washington Post details the tactics Mugabe and other high-level officials used during the three months between the original March election and the June run-off.

 For more in-depth reading into the catalyst and inertia of the crisis in Zimbabwe, I highly recommend Martin Meredith’s biography of Robert Mugabe called Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe.

What you’ll read is difficult to digest and makes clear why Zimbabwe has plummeted into a political, economic, educational, medical and social abyss that has millions of people fleeing the country.

josh

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Morgan Tsvangirai rejects forming a unity government with Robert Mugabe.

From what I’ve seen during the last two and a half weeks in South Africa, I don’t blame him.

A seventeen year old Zimbabwe girl walks the streets of a border town on the South African side. She says she forced to sell her body to support her family. A family whose Zimbabwe money used to mean something.

One of her brother’s waits in line at a Musina health clinic everyday for his tuberculosis medication.

The other brother begs for a ride to Pretoria’s Refugee Reception Center to gain asylum-seeker status by the South African Government.  This piece of paper will promise he will not be sent back to Zimbabwe where he is targeted for being a member of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

This is just one family of thousands struggling to survive because of a crisis in their country just a few miles from their one bedroom apartment.

Hopefully after weeks of footage, notebooks and pictures we can be the voice for some of these people.

For me, if I can inform one person about this situation that touched my core both fairly and accurately then I’ve done my job.

Here are some photos of our trip up to the border:

It may be hard to see, but this is the picture of a little boy on the train who happened to stick his head out from the side of the seats.  There were quite a number of babies and little kids on the train, which made it fun during the night when one would cry, then the other would take cue, and eventually became a chorus of blubbering.  There was no sleep on the train, at least not for me. 

Some of kids would approach us, then run away, approach, run away – it became a fun game for them. 

As it appears, a mother and toddler were just a few rows up from me. I waited for quite a while to take a photo of them.  Every time I was ready to take a shot, she would magically open her eyes and catch me.  I am leary of taking direct photos of people here without asking their permission first, expecially if they have a child.  Or, a vender would come through with loud plastic toys, candy, fruit, potatoes, etc. and wake everyne up.  Eventually, she fell asleep for a while and I got a couple photos of her and the young tike.

 

This is Buhle, a Wits student, who was our translator/guide during the trip.  She’s phenomenal.  Without her, we’d be lost.  I think she speaks 8-9 of the 11 official languages in S. Africa and  has helped us out tremendously. What she is not good at is driving – in fact, she’s horrible – and riding with her is an adventure by itself.  I only feared for my life 407 times during a 15 minute trip, which I guess was an improvement from those that rode with her the day before. 

I’m not sure what the name of this boy’s name is.  He is from Zimbabwe and illegally crossed the border into S. Africa by way of the Limpopo River.  It is an extremely dangerous way to cross into the country because of the crocodiles and hippos that occupy the waters.  He and another young boy beg for money and live on roughly 5 Rand/day (which is about 60 cents/U.S.).  They don’t have a home or clothes, other than what they were wearing.  As you’ll see in the following picture, one of them doesn’t even have shoes.

The two Zimbabwean boys told Buhle the story of how they crossed into S. Africa and what there lives/days have been like since leaving Zimbabwe.  What is amazing is that how they now live, which is literally day to day and very dangerous, is preferable to the way life was in Zim.

They approached me and asked if I’d take there photo.  I got the feeling that they’d been so neglected and were just glad we’d pay attention to them.

 

David is a man from Zimbabwe that we met at the border.  He was a banker by profession but now has to sell handmade boxes/stands to support his five children back in his home country of Zim.  I don’t want to say too much about him because James is going to write a profile on the man.  Plus, I think his eyes say plenty.  He was a very kind and educated man that deserves more from life than what he’s been dealt.  I hope he made it to where he was heading safely.

 

This is a section of the fence that divides S. Africa and Zim.  Border jumpers are constantly cutting holes or digging under it in an attempt to cross over as they flee Zimbabwe.  Border patrol/military are positioned along the fence with high powered rifles to squelch the influx of immigrants. 

We got to the fence around 5 am one morning hoping to see some crossing over, but were unsuccessful.

 

As we walked along the border, we happened upon these clothes that were left behind by a jumper.  They were likely used to cover the barb/razor wire or left in haste as they ran for safety once on the S. African side.

There will be plenty more pictures and stories to follow.

 

josh

(I’ll post pictures and such when I become more adept at this blogging business. Sorry for the solid block of text.)

I wonder what they’re thinking now.

I was trying to figure out how to write my first blog post earlier tonight, thinking of the trip I had just completed to the Zimbabwe-South Africa border. I was thinking about how I would describe the 9-hour bus ride, where travelers to Harare packed everything from cooking oil and blankets to snack chips in WWE wrestler-adorned packages and big-screen TVs they could resell in Zimbabwe. Many of the packages came in bags in colorful plaids or with pictures of African lions and elephants that had been bought at the bus depot for 50 Rand cents, making the travelers look more like tourists returning with vacation souvenirs and not economic refugees reurning to their damaged country with the means to keep their families alive. Every Zimbabwean had to have packed at least a dozen items each, so bags were piled on the bus’s roof where load-bearing metal poles inside supported the weight. When the roof was full, the bottom compartments were filled. When the bottom was full, luggage was arranged, under shouted Shona commands, like a giant 3-D game of Tetris in the back three rows of the bus. When the back was full, clothes and bags turned the center aisle into a rolling landscape, and made for a tight ride. It’s a miracle the bus didn’t drag across the pavement.

I was trying to think how to describe the border itself. Just south of the Beitbridge border post are makeshift fruit markets, parking lot money traders and gas can sellers (where the girls that sell them sleep outside on a mattress for a month at a time) — and all of them reluctant to talk to reporters, knowing what could happen to them or their families if comments disparaging Zimbabwe end up with their names in print. Running out from the post is the fence itself, where immigrants face miles of razor mesh, then stacked coils of razor wire (strangely light and billowy looking), then simple security fencing, not to mention the crocodiles in the Limpopo River. But I saw a herd of 50 screaming baboons jump every one of these obstacles, and judging from the thousands of Zimbabweans who stream into South Africa — escaping the regime of president Robert Mugabe that tortures them economically, politically and literally — it doesn’t seem like it’s much harder for immigrants.

But then I went to the New York Times Web site and saw that the man challenging Mugabe, and the first man to have a genuine chance of ending Mugabe’s 28-year descent from hero to monster, had dropped out of the June 27 run-off election, fearing for voters’ safety and illegitimate vote counts.

And then, all I could do was imagine what they were thinking now. What would Maxwell think, who had helped load the bus and said he was going to return to vote and help oust Mugabe “the killer,” though he said he could be murdered if Mugabe supporters saw him? What would the man who called himself Lucky, the money trader who operated just 100 yards from the border and offered to call us while he waited to in line to cast his ballot, think, after telling me that Mugabe, the “conman,” was killing his country? Or how about David, who lost his job as a banker after Zimbabwe’s economy imploded and now sold bird statues and hand-made drawers by the roadside to try to send his oldest daughter to college?

Because I remembered asking all Zimbabweans that I spoke to on that trip if they were going to vote in the election, and despite Mugabe showing again and again and again that their votes wouldn’t matter, they nearly all said yes. And I remembered thinking, as I was riding that crammed, bouncing bus through the South Africa night, that despite being torn to pieces by Zimbabwe and its leaders, most if not all of these 48 passangers were still going to vote because, at some level, they still believed in their country, so much so that you couldn’t help but believe in it, too.

I wonder what they have to believe in now.

We were on automatic pilot. There was no time to worry how we’d get the job done. We got our assignment Tuesday night: to go up to the border with Zimbabwe and interview border jumpers, refugees, officials, whoever we could find willing to talk with us. We wanted to take a train and a bus, but we didn’t know when or even if either was leaving. We didn’t even know if there’d be Zimbabweans riding it. But Wednesday night four of us boarded a night train to Musina, in northernmost South Africa. And then we found ourselves with plenty of time to think. 18 1/2 hours, to be exact. The train chugged at the speed of a golf cart and made inexplicable stops in the middle of nowhere. We thought we’d have to worry about our luggage being stolen, but there were a lot of families in our train car, and it wasn’t a concern. The train was full and most people had heaps of luggage packed in sturdy plastic bags the size of large footstools. One man somehow vaulted himself onto the luggage rack, laid down a blanket and slept up there.

Buhle, the South African student with us, led us individually through the train to “look for something interesting” and get interviews. She listened for people speaking the main Zimbabwean language, Shona, but unfortunately there were mostly South Africans on board. We did talk to four people, though. Oddly, two of them were Zimbabwean doily makers who sold their wares in South Africa and took the profits, along with food, back to Zimbabwe, where the grocery stores are empty and a loaf of bread costs something like 5 billion Zimbabwean dollars (about $1 US).  Our problem throughout this experience is that people are very afraid to talk with us. If the Zim government finds out you’ve been criticizing the country to the press, you could be arrested, beaten or worse. Some people would allow us to record sound but not take photos or video and many would not give us their names.

As the only white people on the train, we were somewhat of a curiosity, especially among the adorable children. When we arrived in Musina, among the bustling, smoky market stalls and the jam-packed taxi vans and the warm air, I felt almost for the first time that we were really traveling in Africa. I also felt absolutely disgusting, exhausted and, quite frankly, rank.