Desperate refugees in a world gone totally mad

The main refuge for 1500 Zimbabweans in South Africa stinks.

The main refuge for 1500 Zimbabweans in South Africa stinks.

Too many unwashed and ungroomed bodies are crammed into every square centimetre of the Central Methodist Church in central Johannesburg, but the desperate refugees from the insanity across the border have nowhere else to go.

And xenophobic South Africans, worried about limited jobs and resources, haven't exactly welcomed them with open arms.

Bishop Paul Verryn, who unpopularly transformed his church into a sanctuary, says most of the refugees barely survive.

"When they come here they do not have any meaningful resources to survive on. Zimbabwean dollars are meaningless," Verryn says.

He says one of the refugees is a former principal, who now sells newspapers on Sundays.

"That tells you how desperate the situation is. It is a matter of life and death," he says.

Verryn solicits help from business and government to sustain his bedraggled flock.

The desperate foreigners have been met with indifference and often outright xenophobia.

"We should be careful how we treat foreigners," Verryn notes.

"Tens of thousands of foreigners will be here for the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

"We should take this as an opportunity to lay down a legacy for our children. We are a nation of ubuntu, a nation of kindness."

Bodies huddled under threadbare blankets and cardboard boxes dot the street a block from the church as colleague Dudu Busani and I approach the shelter.

It reminds me of another unwelcome family that couldn't find room at an inn more than 2000 years ago. Not much has changed.

Gruff security guards confront us at the door.

The refugees have been attacked by local thugs in the church and have appointed these fellows to keep out the riff-raff.

We pretend to be rural folk who need shelter just for the night. We are let in.

Everyone else is from Zimbabwe. Most of them left because of the political instability, poverty and unemployment.

South Africa beckons as a symbol of security and affluence. But the promise remains unrealised for almost every refugee in the city whose streets are ostensibly paved with gold.

We enter the church after 10pm. It is dark but buzzing with people walking up and down trying to find space to lie down.

The stench of sweat, mould and urine assails our nostrils and brings on an instant headache. Only the most desperate would come here.

We pick our way carefully up to the second floor over bodies covered in newspapers and cardboard.

Put a foot wrong and you step on a sleeping soul. We find a little space to squash ourselves into on the stairs.

We have broken a rule.

"Women do not sleep on the steps. I will take your wife to Robert's Room," says a security guard.

I insist I want to see where "my wife" sleeps.

He takes us to Robert's Room, introduces Dudu to her housemates and takes me to a room reserved for security guards.

Early the next morning I fetch her and we leave.

The next day I return as a journalist to find out what brings them here.

John Moyo, 40, a teacher from Masvingo, says leaving his family was hard.

"I was mistaken for an MDC activist and was victimised," Moyo says.

His problems started after he quit his job of 10 years and joined an NGO in 2001.

"I miss my family, but conditions are not conducive to returning," he says.

Moyo makes a living distri- buting flyers for a sangoma at R25 a day.