Savid and I meet at the village bus stop which may have been a mistake. We are quite visible there and the things he tells me are too painful to hide. I spend a lot of time blinking over and over to keep the water out of my eyes. I concentrate on ignoring the stares of neighbors and from bus windows, patterened with gawking eyes. Savid is oblivious—or perhaps too indignant to care. He has had enough of this country. He is leaving from rage and fear and betrayal.
Ian Khama’s presidential campaign promised social improvements through heightened discipline. He has not failed in administering this discipline. It is impressive and a bit daunting. Many Batswana are not pleased with the 70% tax increase on alcohol or the early closing of public bars. People also complain about the skyrocketing traffic violation fines which, for some offenses, soared from P50 to P1000.
When Khama took office, he meant business. He wanted a sober nation. A safe nation. He also wanted a fair nation. One where only legal Zimbabwean refugees resided. Where citizens could live without the fear of being robbed or assaulted by desperately the poor who had fled their country. And so we began to see more and more deportation vehicles-- stuffed to the brim and heading back to the border. For many Batswana, this was a relief. But for those on the inside, the process seemed haphazard and unjust. One minute they were working, tending the same garden that had employed them for six years, and the next, the police had come and swept them up. Papers and pleas were ignored. Reasons withheld. It was a rapid and merciless process. In the final week of November, Botswana deported 4,000 Zimbabwean refugees. A great cleanse. Though not flawless.
When they came for him there was the natural shock, but Savid had been through this before. He was polite and compliant—calmly unfolding his UN refugee documents and waiting for the expected pardon.
The police glanced at the documents and told Savid to put them away. It was not their job to determine his status, but merely to take him as instructed. Savid protested, insisting that he had a right to know his offense but the officers merely grunted and began attaching handcuffs to his wrists.
“This is unnecessary. I will go with you freely. I merely ask to know my offense.”
“It’s a protocol. I’m sorry—we are required to use these.”
Savid’s hands were fastened behind his back and he was led from the garden to the police vehicle. Friends and coworkers and garden customers stood gaping at this abrupt display. Some called out to ask what had happened. Some ran to the police, demanding an explanation. But Savid couldn’t answer and neither could his escorts. He was Zimbabwean. That’s all the justification they had and needed. He would have to wait for more answers.
Savid was taken to his home and told to pack a bag. He did this reluctantly, still pleading for reason and urgently displaying his passports and papers. The policemen had waning patience and gruffly zipped his bag and reapplied the cuffs. They then drove him 50 kilometers to Molepolole where Savid found himself penned inside a vast cage. There were over 1,000 of them—men on one side and women and children on the other. All Zimbabwean. There were tents but no roof. Someone took Savid’s bag and he would not see it again for four days.
And then the rains started. Cold, hard rains.
Botswana’s rains tend to come staggered—a few hours of downpour and then blazes of sunshine before the next spell. A cloudy day here and there. A brief quenching followed by thick humidity.
There are 340 days of sunshine and blue skies in Botswana each year.
Savid watched the sky cloud over and the wind rise. He hugged his t-shirt against his skin and found his way into a damp tent. From there he watched the rain fall for three days straight. No one came for him. No one responded to his pleas for clarification or his belongings or even a single warm garment. He and the thousand other refugees huddled in confusion and a mounting rage. Waiting and shivering.
It is hard to deal with such mayhem in these uncomfortable weather conditions. It must have overwhelmed the officers, for no one appeared during those days. Rain does much to impede the work flow here in Botswana.
Savid ate three small meals of undercooked porridge each day. He would not step into the showers and when I asked him why he looked away with such disgust it turned my stomach.
“The prison was a pen for animals and I believed I would die there.” He said to me, shaking his head back and forth. “I thought I was finished.”
“And I was angry.” He has stopped looking at me now. “Not at them but me—to die this way. I could have been home—fighting for a cause! Dying for our freedom. But instead I was dying here—in the arms of my protector. And for what…? For what…?”
And I am blinking water
Locked on his sunken eyes and blinking blinking
On the fourth day the rains finally stopped. By noon prison operations had resumed and Savid spotted the Police Chief walking just beyond the chain link fence. He called to her, begging for a moment. Just a word.
The Chief responded to this emotional plea and told Savid there was a protocol he must follow before speaking with her.
But he had taken these steps many times, he insisted. He had asked for a meeting and been ignored time and time again.
The Chief look sideways at Savid. His wrinkled forehead and hollow cheeks. His refugee documents pressed against the fence. There were mountains of others behind him. A list of pleas that preceded him. A protocol that was meant to be followed.
Maybe the Chief knew there had been a mistake. Maybe she merely liked the shape of Savid’s eyes. We call them miracles because the explanations elude us.
And so they did, when Savid was called to her office that afternoon. And when Savid was discharged.
“Maybe God put you here to meet good people,” said the Chief upon Savid’s release.
Savid stared at this good woman and felt gratitude and vulnerability and danger.
Outside the prison gate things had changed.
Savid’s space and God and “good” had been revised.
The Chief’s theory seemed possible. And unconsoling.
The sun is in my eyes now and I’m squinting up to see him. To read the lines on his face at the end of this nightmare story.
I will go now.
Home. To Harare.
Will it be dangerous?
Yes, but perhaps no more dangerous than here.
What has your wife said?
She’s coming for festive season. Her and three of my children. We will plan then.
And what will become of your refugee status?
I will lose it. The UN does not approve of my return. They will make me write a document, saying I voluntarily return to Zimbabwe, fully aware of the risks to my life and safety.
And you are?
And I am blinking blinking blinking