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
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
"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.
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