In Botswana, border turns electric

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

From the Zimbabwe side of the fence, Botswana beckons like a promised land. As the world's largest producer of gem diamonds, Botswana has one of the fastest-growing economies. Combined with a government that embraces multiparty democracy, exercises prudent fiscal policies and polices corruption, Botswana has become a darling of the West, a model for other African nations to follow.

No one knows how many illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe live here, but authorities estimate at least 1 million. So far this year, more than 36,000 Zimbabweans have been deported.

Those who elude authorities perform the backbreaking jobs that the Batswana, as the people of Botswana are known, consider beneath them. If the immigrants die, their deaths often go unnoticed. Earlier this year, the Francistown government buried the unclaimed bodies of a dozen Zimbabwean illegal immigrants. By September, the mortuaries were again clogged with Zimbabwean bodies.

Although Botswana's economy has come to depend on them for cheap labor, Zimbabweans are largely viewed here as a nuisance, responsible for the sharp rise in prostitution, theft, rape and murder.

"Zimbabweans are hated so much. It's as if you are something stinking," says Nomsa Mdlozu, a reporter who covers immigration issues for Francistown's newspaper, The Voice. "Zimbabweans are hard workers especially when it comes to construction. But the Batswana ignore their existence."

Batswana forget, she says, that just 20 years ago when their country was still very poor, thousands of Batswana sought work in Zimbabwe, once considered the breadbasket of Africa.

Police say there is no evidence that Zimbabweans are any more responsible for crime than Batswana. Yet police have won support for stepped-up raids on Zimbabweans, rounding them up by the hundreds at village taxi stands, at factories and in their hide-outs in the desert. Zimbabweans are also the target of a growing vigilante movement in Botswana.

In Francistown, police recently rushed to rescue a Zimbabwean from an angry mob that had accused him of stealing a purse.

In Tlokweng near Botswana's capital, Gaborone, the chief called for the expulsion of Zimbabweans from his village, arguing that they were responsible for escalating crime rates. This year, Botswana's government amended its laws so foreigners could be tried in tribal courts, where chiefs may mete out humiliating sentences such as public lashings.

In Matsiloje, Chief Seleka Paul Moipolai has no doubt that Zimbabweans are guilty of stealing food, cattle, clothing and other items from his village, but he adds that he is sympathetic to the Zimbabweans' suffering.

"When we ask them why they come here, they say they are starving," he says.

A convenient obstacle

A survey by the Southern African Migration Project found that a majority of Batswana support having an electrified border fence to control illegal immigrants.

In the eyes of many Batswana, the animal control fence is a convenient obstacle for humans as well as cattle. To the Zimbabwean government, it is an insult. Zimbabwe's High Commissioner to Botswana balked at the project, comparing it to the security wall that Israel is building in the West Bank to control the movements of Palestinians.

Botswana has been one of the few African nations to openly criticize Mugabe's land reform, and the fence has further cooled relations. Zimbabwean officials, meanwhile, say they are baffled by the numbers fleeing their country.

"I don't know why anyone from one country would go to another country," George Charamba, a spokesman for the Zimbabwe President's Office, says in a telephone interview from Harare.

But Emmanuel Madzongwe, a 34-year-old musician who was arrested jumping the border this month in hopes of earning some money playing his guitar in Botswana, had an answer for his government.

"There's nothing to do in Zimbabwe," he says, waiting to be deported in a windowless truck to his homeland. "People don't have money for entertainment. Any money they have, they spend on food."