In Botswana, border turns electric

Fence: But no barrier may be too great to hold back surge of illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe.

November 25, 2003|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MATSILOJE, Botswana - Residents of this village along the border with Zimbabwe were quite pleased when Botswana's government began erecting a 10-foot-high electrified fence to separate the two countries.

Officially, the fence is to keep out livestock from Zimbabwe suspected of carrying foot-and-mouth disease.

But the villagers are hoping the fence, which will snake across 300 miles of desert scrub, will do more: block the path of thousands of illegal immigrants who are fleeing the political and economic turmoil in Zimbabwe.

Now that the electric fence is nearly complete, villagers wonder whether it will deliver a shock powerful enough to stop the Zimbabweans, whom they blame for Botswana's rising number of thefts, rapes and other crimes.

"We still don't know whether it will work. The generator is very weak," said Simon Lephalo, a member of the local council in this acacia shaded village of 1,200 people.

In the shimmering desert heat, Zimbabweans plod from house to house in border towns begging to wash cars, mow lawns, weed gardens and perform odd jobs, anything for a hot meal or a handful of change.

At night they disappear, sleeping in the dry reeds along the banks of the Tati River, bedding down in the desert, taking refuge in bus stops or crowding into tiny rented shelters.

No fence may be high enough or threatening enough to hold back the rising tide of illegal immigrants, authorities in Botswana say. There are too many reasons for Zimbabweans to leave.

Nearly half of Zimbabwe's population of 12.5 million people is facing starvation this year, and 80 percent of the population is without work and living in poverty. There are shortages of fuel, bread, and cooking oil and other staples. The country's doctors have been on strike since October demanding raises to keep pace with an annual inflation rate of 450 percent.

Zimbabwe's hardships are the legacy of President Robert G. Mugabe, the former guerrilla fighter who brought an end to white minority rule in 1980. Twenty years later, facing mounting opposition to his poor management of the economy, Mugabe launched a racially charged, chaotic and often-violent program of seizing white-owned farms for landless black peasants, crippling the country's agriculture-based economy.

Mugabe won re-election last year after a vote marred by charges of intimidation and fraud. A long-lasting drought, meanwhile, left millions of Zimbabweans hungry and dependent on government food aid that critics say is often denied to Mugabe's opponents.

But Zimbabwe's problems do not stop at its borders. Like the echoes from a distant explosion, the political and economic upheavals of Zimbabwe are being felt across the region, especially in Botswana and South Africa.

South Africa remains the top destination for Zimbabweans, but the immigrants' impact is greater in Botswana, a sparsely populated country of 1.7 million people.

Each new economic or humanitarian disaster in Zimbabwe triggers a fresh wave of human misery spilling into Botswana.

Flooding the country are Zimbabweans such as 22-year-old Themma Tlou. A mother of two, Tlou lived on a white-owned commercial farm where her father worked until government-backed militias seized the land and forced them to flee in 2000.

Out of work and out of food, Tlou left her children with her parents and paid a guide $5 to escort her across the border into Botswana. Under the cover of night she slipped through a tear in the fence and started walking to Francistown, an industrial center of 100,000 less than an hour's drive from the border. She had no money, just a jacket and hat to wear at night and a modest dream of earning the equivalent of $50 to take home. But her dreams were short-lived. Early the next morning, Botswana police patrolling the border arrested her.

She was brought to the Center for Illegal Immigrants, a sprawling brick complex outside Francistown that houses hundreds of immigrants awaiting deportation. They are given three meals a day, a blanket to sleep on and a ride to the Zimbabwe border. Some Zimbabweans are so flattered by the treatment they beg to stay at the compound. In Zimbabwe, they say, they will only suffer.

"All of the industries have closed. We don't have work," says Tlou, waiting to be deported.

Edmora Banda, a surprisingly cheerful 20-year-old who is well-known among immigration officials, was also waiting to be deported - for the eighth time.

On his most recent stay, he found a job at a brick-making factory in Francistown, earning 20 pula, about $5 a day, a fraction of what a Botswana citizen would demand but a fortune in Zimbabwe, where he earned $10 a month as a gardener.

He has sent his savings back home to support his parents, two brothers and three sisters. When authorities deport him again to Zimbabwe, he'll do just as he has done in the past.

"By tomorrow afternoon, I will be back," he promises.

Darling of the West

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