Friday, May 23, 2008

The Refugees Up Close

Stepping out of a comfort zone, the daily cocoon, is highly recommended. If you find yourself feeling sorry for yourself, or worrying about yourself, go and have a look at how people poorer than yourself are coping. I can tell you my heart really went out to these people today. 'The poor' aren't just a concept, or a category, they are many many different people, with their own hopes, dreams, ideas and difficulties.

And do you know what? They were not miserable - most of them. A lot of them greeted me, some smiled, and called to me when I took out my camera. They were from Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Angola, and yes, many from Zimbabwe. There were about 1500-2000 refugees crowded onto the lawns, a sort've backyard courtyard area behind Jeppe Police Station in Johannesburg.

When Chris and I first pitched up we thought nothing was going on, because from the outside the police station looked random and unassuming. There were two strange looking black men, one with a Muslim like skullcap on, standing outside, well-dressed but looking troubled. Behind them was a red ant, a man dressed in a red overall and carrying a green crow bar. We followed him into the building and towards many more 'ants' and a din and then, there they were...a huge though Jesus were on the other side, giving an impromptu sermon. What other reason could have brought so many people here together?

Near the door was a young white girl handing out pieces of paper with about a dozen children scribbling and coloring on their paper, sitting quietly around her on the ground. In itself, it was a lovely portrait of man's humanity to man. The crowd was subdued. I have taught classrooms with 30 students that made far more noise than this 2000-strong crowd. They seemed spooked, and disoriented, and dismayed, but not morose or angry.

Chris led me to the VOC, and after speaking to a priest who wanted to refer us to 'someone in charge' we spoke to someone with 'Burger' emblazoned on his chest. Later on we met Sheila, a volunteer from no organisation, who was helping out. She showed us a little boy with an interesting pair of glasses he'd made...and asked if we wanted to take a photo. She said some of the people had been here since Sunday. I asked her where they slept, and she said there were tents around the back.

On the raised patio there was a table, and entry to this higher platform was controlled by a few red ants. We saw a lot of bread, and a few cups with beef soup going up and down steps. People had to fill in forms, I'm guessing, each time they came up to eat. There were a few, a handful of individuals with bright yellow and blue police vests milling between the crowd. I wanted to walk between the crowd, but Chris was concerned for our safety. Sheila, the white women who sort've became our chaperone, said we'd be perfectly safe, and led us down between the people. We walked between pots and pans, the odd fridge, someone cooking pieces of meat on bone and tomatoes, mothers with children, people sleeping in the sun on mattresses, large groups standing around, possibly in prayer, or just listening to someone speaking quietly, between all the human paraphernalia - scattered, you had to guess, you had to imagine, by tempests of violence.

Some refugees I spoke to said they were just sleeping on the open ground. Women and children were in the tents, some breastfeeding, some just lying there, obviously feeling lost and uncertain. How would you feel if all your possessions amounted to a few blankets, a big plastic container loaded with dishes. You'd left your country and now, didn't know where you belonged.

Someone said that there were plans to put everyone in an area together, which made me think that 'integration' hasn't worked in the black townships. It hasn't worked on many university campuses either. South Africans, black and white, appear disintegrated, and to be - as a society - disintegrating further. The countries entire population, even including the flood of immigrants, is shrinking at -0.5% a year.

The tent feels oppressively hot, and on the outside, lots of washing is strung on lines, dripping, causing marshy conditions underfoot. I stumble upon a woman who is about to urinate in a corner where all this washing was hanging, and it occurs to me that after a while, this place isn't going to be suitable for so many people.

I also stumble upon a young Zimbabwean mother, Thandi, and a cute little girl, Diana. She is the only person who is certain that she wants to go back home (to Zimbabwe). She says they have made arrangements to catch a bus. She seems resigned to it, but determined, and in the few moments I share with her, I can't help being very touched by the difficulties just taking the trip home with such a young child will involve. Imagine going back to Zimbabwe now, with the elections imminent and 77 tons of weapons equipment having recently arrived?

A number of older women lay inside a tent; one says to me: "Your brothers did this to us."
It takes a while for the portent of this to sink in. I say: "I think the prices going up, for bread, for the bus fare, that's why the people have become angry. Everyone is struggling. And so they thought they can get rid of you, not because they hate you but because they have become desperate."
I think they might think I am not being sympathetic, or somehow not being supportive of what has happened to them, but they see my point immediately, agreeing that for everyone there it has suddenly become very expensive and very difficult to survive.

I suggest they try to find work on farms, because with food prices going up, probably there will be more jobs. I also tell them about the oil price, saying that unfortunately the future is looking more and more difficult for everyone. But I say, "If we can work on a farm and grow something together, maybe we can be all right."

It is only during the drive back, through Johannesburg's unfamiliar streets that I start to, recall my discomfort of taking pictures of these vulnerable people to Chris (my cousin, who is a professional photographer) . I recount my impressions of those terrible pictures of the burning man.
I'm clearer now than ever, that their consciences ought to be bugging the hell out of them - standing right there, taking pictures, while a man is burning right in front of you. Look, maybe they did try to help. I don't know. What I do know is, there where we were, I was touched profoundly by my encounter with the human condition. It seemed to me particularly vulgar to walk around, amongst these poor people, taking photos of them.

A few people asked me, "Why do you want photos?" and I took a moment to consider the question carefully. I said, "Because people want to understand, and need to understand what has happened to you. Because people want to know what has happened. I also want to know. And maybe this can help people to see what is happening here."
And so I hope you can see what I saw today.

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