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‘Congolese refugees were fleeing terrible living conditions in Zimbabwe’

The Congolese refugees who were recently intercepted by police in Bulawayo wanted to leave Zimbabwe to seek better living conditions elsewhere and were fleeing a ‘scrappy’ life they lived at Tongogara Refugee Camp in Chipinge, CITE has established

The 104 foreign nationals, including young children, were intercepted on Monday by police at a house in Hillside suburb and detained at Hillside Police Station.

They had allegedly escaped from Tongogara refugee camp and were in transit to their home country via Botswana.

According to the police, after the refugees had taken their Covid-19 tests, they were placed under the Social Welfare Department while investigations continued.

“We arrested their driver, Sede Rosa, who was charged for transporting people when intercity travel has been banned during the national lockdown period. Rosa, is a Zimbabwean national and moved the migrants in a truck,” said Bulawayo Provincial Police Spokesperson, Inspector Abednico Ncube.

Sources said Rosa “had paid a fine and already gone back to Mutare.”

Inspector Ncube said they had also detained one, Leonard Kwete, a Congolese national who stays in Hillside, who is suspected to be the one who was dealing with the migrants.

“Kwete, their leader, who is 53 was not charged yet as investigations are ongoing,” Insp Ncube told CITE.

But it emerged Kwete was charged for violating the country’s Immigration Act as he was accused of leaving Tongogara Refugee Camp in 2001 without clearance from the camp’s officer in charge.

Kwete was due to appear at Tredgold Magistrates Court in Bulawayo on Saturday but his case was dismissed.

His lawyer, Sifiso Sibanda of Ncube Attorneys told CITE that Kwete was charged for an alleged offence that took place 20 years ago but according to the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act the matter could not be entertained in court.

“When we say a matter has been prescribed, we say you can no longer be prosecuted, as it has run out of time. There’s nothing else you can do. Kwete was charged with the Immigrant Act for leaving the camp without clearance and 20 years later it’s ridiculous. Kwete is free to go back home,” she said.

Sources also said, “it was funny for Kwete to be arrested at this particular moment, as he used to be hired as an interpreter for court sessions or by the police when the cases involved Congolese nationals or French-speaking people.”

In a telephonic interview, Kwete told CITE that he was not linked to the refugees in any way but circumstances had placed them together.

He said he hitched a ride in a truck that was coming from Tongogara Refugee Camp, the same vehicle that was transporting the refugees.

“The truck had gone to deliver some building material in Tongogara, while I had a load of goods to bring to Bulawayo.  Inside the camp, these families were interested in coming with us. They prepared to leave and came in their numbers after agreeing with the truck driver,” Kwete said.

Kwete insisted he and the refugees were just passengers in the same truck.

“The driver drove from Tongogara up to Bulawayo and when we reached Bulawayo, I asked to offload my goods in my house. We came straight with those people to my house. I was not in charge of them,” he claimed.

While offloading his goods, Kwete  said the truck driver decided to take a nap “for a bit, as he was tired, so did those people who were already with their connection, preparing to go to Botswana.”

“This is the time the police came. They were called by neighbours who said there are people gathering at my place during Covid-19. The time was around 11 am, after three or four hours of our arrival.”

Kwete alleged these refugees wanted to seek better opportunities outside Zimbabwe, as their documentation papers to formalise their stay in the country were allegedly rejected by authorities.

“They are refugees, who had been in Zimbabwe for some years and their status was rejected.  According to what they were saying, they were told in meetings that ‘everyone whose status was rejected has to leave the country because Zimbabwe doesn’t want you anymore and have to prepare, or find their own means to leave,’” he alleged.

“So some of them were telling me, they asked for gate passes and were denied with officials saying, ‘no, the same way you came here, is the same way you can use to leave.”

Kwete added: “They were also told, ‘we are no longer going to assist you with medical treatment, even food or whatever.’ The refugees decided they cannot live here when there is no future for their children and their life whatsoever, so they decided to leave. They found other ways to Botswana. That was their mission.”

Meanwhile, coincidentally, the same house where Kwete lives in Hillside is the same six-room house that was burnt down on Tuesday, a day after the Congolese refugees arrive, by one of the tenants, Miriam Goba (27) after a dispute with her husband, one Chirisa.

Bulawayo Chief Fire Office, Linos Phiri, confirmed there were many people living in the house, “there were three families in that house and it seemed there were Congolese people there as well but in transit.”

Goba was arrested and charged with malicious damage to property.

Coincidentally again, the owner of the house is said to be in Botswana.

When CITE visited the house, Kwete’s wife narrated how the fire was possibly started by Goba.

“There was no electricity at the time, I just saw a light in their room and assumed it was a candle, though it was clear outside. Less than 10 minutes later, we heard Goba ordering us to go outside otherwise we would burn in the house,” Mrs Kwete said.

“When we opened our door, we saw the sofa had already caught. We tried to fetch water to put out the fire but it was too late as it had spread to the rest of the house. Electrical appliances started exploding and there was a gas tank in the house including car batteries and electrical cables since her husband was an electrician.”

Questioned on the presence of the Congolese migrants at their residence, Mrs Kwete became evasive.

“They were not staying here. Just that when people start talking they pass on the wrong information. They were people who were just in transit,” she said.

Nozizwe Mother of Nations Trust, which had brought volunteers to assist in clearing up the rubble said, “the families need warm clothing, food, furniture and comfort.  No one has come to help them or hear their side of the story so they need that love,” said Elliot Kufuma.

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