I can’t get the stench of urine out of my nostrils. It’s the smell of fear, anger and humiliation.
I smelt it last night, when I spoke to the refugees outside Caledon Square police station. I saw it running thick in the gutters a couple of feet away from where people were sleeping. I smelt it again this morning, when I went round to advise them that lawyers and press were about to visit to take statements. The refugees were preparing to embark on a hunger strike. Theo, a published author from the DRC, was standing on a milk crate, addressing his comrades. They were refusing to abandon the pavement, in protest at their treatment by the government.
There must have been a whole lot of developments during the day which I was unable to track, as this evening they were being driven to a community hall in Sea Point, awaiting a visit by the provincial premier or his representative.
After talking to the refugees at Caledon Square, I crossed the road to the District Six Museum, to request they open up toilet facilities. Filled with righteous indignation at the doors I’d found barred the night before, I embarrassed myself fairly thoroughly, as it turned out the side doors had been open, and the museum staff had been doing a great deal for the refugees.
Then I drove out with another volunteer to assessments of the refugee sites, one of several teams with that task today. We expected to see signs of misery, and to run into obstructive and unpleasant officials. Fortunately we did not. Others, however, did.
Silwerstroom, which is one of the six official city camps, is 45 mins drive out of the city, north, near Atlantis. It’s a resort. Now there are six large tents erected there, the kind events management people erect for banquets. Carpets cover the earth.
The site was created to cater for 2000 people. Fortunately, only 250 are there, and in what seemed like relatively decent conditions, though as the rain pours down now, I dread to think how miserable they must be. Though they have many blankets and sleeping mats, many said they’d been terribly cold at night, and I know from experience how cold it can get right next to the Atlantic, even in the middle of summer.
The Red Cross is now leading efforts to feed people, albeit inconsistently. They get just two meals a day, and the ‘brunch’ we saw served late at 12.15 was little more than two slices of bread.
Officials from the Department of Home Affairs were visiting. One of the DRC refugees pointed at one of them, and said he had told her that her son, born in South Africa, is not a South African national.
Many of them came from Du Noon, and again I heard reports of how police in that area had collaborated in the looting of their homes and shops. The refugees now have a fairly universal distrust and fear of black South Africans, by all accounts. At one of the sites, some were threatened with throat slitting gestures by people erecting tents. Officials running some of the sites are siphoning off supplies and selling them or giving them away to non-refugees.
We then visited several churches in Rondebosch, Claremont and Mowbray, each housing between 20 and 100 people. In all of them, the local communities had provided amazing support. At one church in Claremont, doctors, even counsellors, had been organised. There are many hundreds of people around the city working very hard to support other refugees in similar circumstances.
But the situations do vary. Twenty people holed up in a church in Mowbray will not venture onto the streets. They were hounded by an angry mob outside a church right in the middle of Cape Town, an incident which has gone completely unreported it seems.
The vast majority of refugees seem to be Zimbabwean and Congolese. In other words, from two of the most conflict-ridden countries in the region.
Someone from TAC this evening heard the following statement from one of the refugees departing the pavement at Caledon Square. They embarked on the buses in terrible fear, dreading where they might actually be taken. This man, a Burundian, spoke along these lines:
“Many of us have been running all our lives. Since I was six, I have been surrounded by death. I escaped genocide in Burundi to go to Rwanda. I fled genocide in Rwanda to the DRC, and fled from mass killings there to return to Rwanda. From there, I went to Tanzania, and then came to South Africa. Now, this happens, and I must flee again.”
Here’s a New York Times article on everything that’s happening, written in their customary remote and genteel tones.