After 3,500 miles, Rwandan, 14, seeks schooling

October 07, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- There's a look in the eyes of Samson Mugambiri that tells you he's seen more in his 14 years than most humans see in a lifetime.

The young Rwandan left his home in May, beginning an odyssey that ended 3,500 miles later when he was picked up at the South African border.

He had traveled mostly on foot, scrounging food, escaping a Rwandan tragedy in which hundreds of thousands have been massacred.

His appearance with 10 older companions on South Africa's border with Zimbabwe has stirred fears of an influx of thousands, even millions, of legitimate refugees and illegal immigrants seeking a haven in what many believe to be the continent's most prosperous and stable country.

But Samson's face shows more than exhaustion.

"I saw many people die," he said. "I saw people die in their houses when they were burned down. I saw a lot of blood on the roadway."

He is living at Refuge in Christ, a center mainly for down-and-out South Africans in an old dormitory town for mine workers on the southeast fringe of Johannesburg.

Samson's parents were members of a Hutu political group implicated in the massacres of Rwanda's Tutsi population. But the overriding fact is that a 14-year-old lost both parents in his country's bloody upheaval.

Eventually, he walked across Rwanda and joined the exodus to camps in Goma, Zaire. His two brothers died there of cholera.

"There was no reason for me to stay there after that," he said.

He joined a group headed south. "They told me that if we made it to South Africa, [that] because of my age I would be able to go to school."

The group got occasional rides, but walked most of the way through Zaire, Zambia and Zimbabwe to South Africa. Samson said that they lived mainly on bread bought with money they begged for when they came across a church. At rivers, they were careful of crocodiles and hippopotamuses.

"Until we reached South Africa, we did not even know when we crossed into another country. We were just out in the bush."

But much of South Africa's border with Zimbabwe is guarded by electrified fence. Samson and the others were picked up when they tried to cross on Sept. 22.

South African police handed them over to the United Nations. They join a growing number of political refugees in South Africa.

The bulk of them, more than 100,000, came to escape years of warfare in Mozambique. With two years of peace and an election scheduled for later this month, many of them are being sent home.

According to U.N. figures, about 4,500 people are officially seeking political asylum in South Africa. Those refugee figures are dwarfed by the number of illegal immigrants, estimated at 2 million, though some say it is much higher.

During the apartheid era, many Africans came into South Africa illegally. Though there was political oppression, there were jobs not available in neighboring states.

The apartheid regime's policy toward immigration was based mainly on security: It was using its electrified borders with Zimbabwe and Mozambique to keep out supporters of liberation movements.

But the regime did little to discourage economic refugees, as they were often willing to work on rural farms or in suburban gardens at wages well below those demanded by black South Africans. Many refugees eventually lived in one of the country's black homelands.

But now that those homelands have disappeared and South Africa has a government concerned about more than the welfare of white farmers and suburbanites, there is something of a crackdown on illegal immigrants deemed to be taking jobs from South Africans.

The specter of unrest to the north sending a wave of refugees south has compounded not only those fears, but the long-standing propaganda-fueled apprehension among whites that the election of a black government would lead to their country's being swamped by the chaos of the continent.

Justin Bizimana and Didien Tunguhone are 22-year-old college students, Hutus who fled Rwanda when the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front came to power in July. Finding only violence and sickness in the refugee camps in Tanzania, they fled to Mozambique, walking and hitching rides until they arrived in South Africa three weeks ago.

Now they want to go home.

"We have no jobs, no qualifications," said Mr. Tunguhone. "We want to go back when the country is quiet."

"It is good we came here, because we would have probably died if we had stayed," Mr. Bizimana said. "But now there is nothing for us here. There are no jobs. We are suffering.

"In our country, the Hutus have killed the Tutsis, the Tutsis have killed the Hutus. It is our history. There is nothing we can do about it. Even if we get killed, it is better to go home."

As for Samson, he seems a bit bewildered. His long trek has put him in a country where almost no one speaks his native Kinyarwanda language, where he is caught up in the international refugee apparatus, where he is the centerpiece of a small news media storm.

"I just want to go to school," he said. "I finished grammar school; now I want to go to high school."

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