14 July 2014

Africa: 'I Infiltrated a Ruthless Ring of Human Smugglers'

Bulawayo — It's 5 p.m. in Zimbabwe and I'm at an infamous taxi rank in Bulawayo, the second largest city in the country. I had made the crazy decision to join a group of 'border jumpers' and illegally cross into South Africa.

For years, I heard spine-chilling stories about border jumpers being eaten by crocodiles in the Limpopo River. I heard about ruthless border gangs called omaguma guma raping female border jumpers and shooting anyone who resisted being robbed. I heard tips on how to avoid being shot by South African soldiers patrolling their side of the border.

A friend, familiar with the operations of human smugglers, takes me to Macs Garage where cross-border taxi operators are ranked.

"These are the human smugglers," my friend warns. "They will either take you across the border into South Africa through the bush, or you will end up dead in the mortuary as a victim of either omaguma guma criminals or South Africa border guards. That is, if your ancestors abandon you."

Meeting the hyenas

I am told to get into a taxi already filled with other would-be border jumpers. Some are women as old as 50. Some are children as young as four.

The taxi driver looks at me and asks: "My friend, are you fit for this journey? You don't look well to me. " He's right. I am ill. But I had decided to make the sacrifice and sell my soul to the devil. I wanted to know what it felt like to be a border jumper - someone so desperate to get into Europe or South Africa that he is willing to risk his life.

It's 7 p.m. Our taxi, along with another, departs towards the border town of Beitbridge. Our group totals 45 border jumpers. Most are from Zimbabwe, but some are from as far away as Mozambique, Malawi, Somalia, Ethiopia and Central Africa Republic.

Four hours later we stop at a filling station just before the check point. This is the haven of the human smugglers. We are introduced to our border guides who are known as 'hyenas' - impisi in the local Ndebele language.

"Listen up all of you," says one. "Your lives are now in our hands. Your rights have ceased to exist and it's us now who call the shots. When you are with us, you do as you are told. Otherwise you won't make it to the other side."

Bribes and beatings

We are forced to surrender our cell phones and other valuables in case we encounter any omaguma guma criminals. We are left with only the clothes on our back. If something happens, there will be no way of informing our families.

We are bundled onto metered taxis which take us to the forest. Accompanied by six guides and our driver, we walk towards the river.

At the bridge, we see Zimbabwe soldiers at their checkpoint. A guide tells us to hide while he goes to negotiate with them about allowing us to pass into South Africa.

The guide returns and says that the soldiers want big money. By these actions, the soldiers seem willing participants in this border racket.

One of the guides is drunk and accuses the soldiers of being corrupt because they are asking for so much bribe money. The soldiers get angry and drag the guide closer to the river. We watch as they beat him up with sticks, boots and fists. The guide screams for help, but even his friends are too scared to intervene.

Bones and skulls

We finally pass the Zimbabwe side of the border, but there's still a more challenging border to go. Since I am ill and not strong enough to climb a wall, I jump down from the bridge. It leaves me with a twisted ankle and back pains. I'm thirsty but there's no water.

"We are now taking the risky path," says a guide. "If you make it, you will be in South Africa. If you are killed by border gangs, that's tough luck."

We walk for three hours through rough and rocky terrain towards a mountain where our taxis, which crossed the border the legal way, are supposed to be waiting.

Ripped clothes and empty bottles are scattered around the bush. We come across human bones, skulls and remains. We are told these were border jumpers who have not made it. A young woman faints from either shock or fatigue.

It takes the guides an hour to revive her as she struggles for breath. As we wait, I think about taking a picture of the skulls but my camera had been taken away along with my phone. I couldn't very well say I was a journalist and ask one of the guides to take a picture.

Obviously the human smugglers don't want to be exposed. This makes them dangerous. They are known to throw those who refuse to pay for their services into the Limpopo River to become a feast for the crocodiles. It's said that over the years hundreds have lost their lives that way.

The human smugglers have also been accused of holding border jumpers until their families in Johannesburg pay ransom. Over 30 women and teenage girls were recently rescued from a house just outside Johannesburg where they were held as hostages.

Ready for war

"Let's move. Time is not on our side," shouts a guide. The male border jumpers are told to arm themselves with sticks, axes, stones or anything that can ward off an attack.

"We have now entered a dangerous place patrolled by gangs. Please all men: be ready for war. These guys take no prisoners. They are ruthless killers," says the guide.

"Lord, how can I die when I am almost there," I silently pray.

Finally we reach the mountain and safe terrain. A guide says we are very lucky. Another guide phones the taxi drivers who are quick to arrive.

We all feel more safe the closer we get to Messina town. I suddenly realise that my expensive leather jacket has been stolen.

I don't understand why people undertake this dangerous journey. It costs over 100 euros. To apply for a Zimbabwe passport only costs 35 euros.

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