Sila News Agency, Dec. 22, 2008
MORE than 5,000 illegal immigrants who were deported to Zimbabwe from Botswana last week have vowed to return despite the harsh conditions they endured during their arrest and subsequent detention in Botswana prisons.
Thousands of illegal immigrants, the majority who are Zimbabweans, were last week caught unawares in a joint operation conducted by the Botswana Defence Force (BDF), the Botswana Police Services and the Immigration Department. The operation is a routine exercise aimed at flushing out immigrants who have entered the country illegally and those who have overstayed and are working without residence and work permits.
However, those who were caught in the recent raids say this was a major operation as it caught veterans who came to Botswana 20 years back. The raids started on Monday last week. Armed soldiers and the police manned major roads leading into towns and stopped Combis and asking passengers to disembark and identify themselves.
Those who failed to produce identification documents were arrested, put on army trucks and taken to police stations for vetting by the CID and immigration officials. The vetting exercise involved fingerprint checks to identify criminals while immigration officials checked the authenticity of travel documents and residence permits.
The vetting exercise was conducted at local police stations countrywide. In Gaborone, after going through the vetting exercise, those who could not justify their status and stay in the country were transferred to the Maximum Security Prison at the Gaborone Village for deportation by the immigration department. Some were deported the same day. But as the numbers continued to swell with more arrests during the raids, some had to be detained at the Boys Prison while the majority were transferred to Molepolole Prison which accommodates a larger number.
The Boys Prison was full to capacity mostly with Zimbabweans and a few Chinese, Egyptians and Bangladeshis.
Prison amenities became overwhelmed to the extent that some of the inmates had to sleep in the open without blankets. Food was in short supply while ablution facilities were in a mess due to overuse. Hunger and uncertainty as to when they would be deported caused the inmates to be irritable and agitated. They became abusive threatening to mutiny and break prison gates. “Why do you arrest and detain us when you do not have enough food to feed us,” they shouted at prison officers. Some sat in groups and engaged in political debates centred on the fate of Robert Mugabe whom they blame for their suffering.
Things were worse at Molepolole Prison where more than 2,000 people were awaiting deportation. Inmates, included children as young as two years old, adult men and women with their property. The food queues were long it took almost an hour and half to be served. At night inmates fought endlessly for sleeping mats and blankets.
Molepolole Prison started deporting on November 25. Each day, four truckloads, popularly known as ‘gumba gumbas’—meaning a truck which carries large numbers of people from place to place especially in police raids—would leave for Francistown.
Most detainees complained that they were arrested before getting their salaries, which were due at the end of the month. “I am definitely coming back this week to collect my money, as soon as I get off at Plumtree, I will organise and find means to come back. I left my money, property and my girlfriend does not even know that I am being deported,” said Stewart Muringisi, a builder who worked in Tlokweng. Wilson Machaya, a carpenter arrested in Mogodisthane while going to buy bread vowed that by hook or crook, he would be back to complete the roofing he was doing in G-West Industrial. “I am roofing a house for a Motswana civil servant, the rains are going to damage the roofing trusses which I had already fitted; so I just have to come back and finish the job, whether I will be arrested again in another raid is something else,” he said. The detainees spent an average of three days of misery at the prison before being deported.
The journey from Molepolole to the Ramokgwabana border is not direct while travel on the immigration trucks is not comfortable at all. Ventilation in the trucks is very poor and they become extremely hot during the day. Toilet facilities are not fitted in some of the older trucks. As the convoy of trucks cruised at top speed along the highway to Francistown, the women could be heard singing liberation war songs. Some were happy to be caught in the raids because they needed the free transport to ferry their property home.
There is a stopover at Gerald Estate Prison outside Francistown before the border. They register once more and go through the cumbersome process of surrendering valuables and passports before being allocated a place to sleep at the Gerald facility. Four truckloads take almost three hours to clear. By the time the registration exercise is finished, it will be the early hours of the following day. The stay at Gerald is short lived.
As early as 6am before breakfast, the usual count is done and if there are no escapees, the deportees are assigned duties before departure. Some are ordered to sweep the cells while others pick litter around the prison grounds. The unlucky ones may be asked to work like convicted prisoners.
As they perform these tasks, talks become more centred on what to do once they reach the Plumtree border in order to return without being intercepted on the way back. After breakfast, they regroup for a final recount and return of the valuables before boarding the trucks to take them home.
The journey from Gerald Prison to Ramokgwabana border does not take long. Within an hour and a half, the convoy of four truckloads of illegal immigrants arrives at the border gates and proceeds straight to the Zimbabwean side where the Botswana immigration authorities hand over the deportees to their Zimbabwean counterparts. The deportees receive a warm welcome home by their countrymen.
The breath of fresh air, the breath of freedom from captivity for more than five days is an unforgettable experience to first-time offenders while for the habitual deportees, disembarking from the immigration trucks is only the beginning of the return journey to Gaborone.
The handover exercise involves asking the deportees if they have any complaints against the immigration authorities during captivity, whether they were tortured, harassed, beaten or denied food by the Botswana immigration authorities. Many complaints are brushed aside as trivial. The deportees are finally handed over to officials of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) for counselling.
It assists the deportees with food, health care and transport to their destinations after counselling them on proper safe and legitimate ways of travelling into foreign countries. Meanwhile, as the Botswana trucks head back, the deportees who vowed to go back disappear into the crowd, sneak to their secret routes and jump the border.