Chipinge – THE mention of Matsanga, a military wing of the Mozambican opposition party, Mozambican National Resistance (Renamo), invokes frightful memories for thousands of people living across the Zimbabwean border with Mozambique.
There are so many horror stories which are still engraved in the memories and hearts of many that the Alfonso Dhlakama-led rebels inflicted on both Zimbabwean and Mozambican nationals in the 1980s.
After years of peace in the neigbouring country, Renamo bandits are back and Zimbabwe is already feeling the heat, with refugees now streaming across the border, seeking shelter.
There are stories of people being beaten, maimed, raped, killed or having their lifetime investments wiped out as punishment by Renamo soldiers.
More than 200 people who fled Mozambique recently, are now camped at Mabeye village in Chipinge and a visit to the area last week exposed another untold story of the conflict at Zimbabwe’s door step.
As the news crew arrived at the temporary holding camp on Wednesday afternoon, scores of dejected school-going children were basking in the sun while others rolled worn out bicycle tyres. It emerged that most adults had crossed the border back into Mozambique to hunt for food to feed their families. The standards of living at the camp are deplorable.
There are no water and ablution facilities, as families have to make do with only a few tents given to them by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Some families have also converted mosquito nets into makeshift tents where they must brave the chilly weather with their young children.
Renamo insurgents have been on the offensive, pushing thousands of people, especially along border areas, into becoming refugees in neighbouring countries. After being punished in many painful ways, including torture for allegedly siding with the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo), the victims – most of them of Zimbabwean origin – left everything behind and fled in the middle of the night across the border where they are attempting to start a new life.
The refugees said although they were relatively safe in Zimbabwe, they were still living in fear.
They said they constantly checked the situation in Mozambique, and get more worried when they hear it is not getting any better for them to cross back for their belongings.
As they were in the middle of recounting their horror to this publication, one of the refugees received a phone call that the bandits, who camp in nearby mountains, were on the prowl. That was heart-breaking news for them as they feared for the safety of other camp members who had slipped back to Mozambique in the morning to find food .
“We came from Mozambique after Matsanga [Renamo] came from Gorongoza into our area in Chingowe in Musirizi. They would move door to door accusing us of supporting Frelimo,” said Livius Johani. “They would assault us and take away our cattle, goats and other belongings.
“They extorted money from us for allegedly not siding with them. They often came making outrageous demands which we could not meet and after failing to pay them, they indiscriminately assaulted us.”
Johani added: “This was the day to day life we were subjected to for about two months until we decided to seek refuge in Zimbabwe.
“We were welcomed and given this camp to settle. I sustained multiple injuries and lost my investments until I decided that I would not take it anymore.”
Johani, a father of four minor children lives in a makeshift tent made from mosquito nets. There is no hope that more than 100 children at the camp will be going back to school anytime soon and all they do at the camp is play or herd the few cattle their parents managed to flee with.
An elderly woman, Diana Sithole, said it was her second time to live in Zimbabwe after escaping Renamo 25 years ago.
This time around she packed her few things in a huff and abandoned her home after failing to secure money demanded by Renamo.
Sithole said other people spent many nights sleeping in the forests while others were left hospitalised after they were brutally assaulted by the rebels.
“We were living peacefully before Matsanga came. In the few months these men have been in our area, life has not been easy,” she said before receiving a phone call informing her that the bandits were on the loose again.
Sithole nearly broke down after receiving the phone call as she feared for the safety of those they had sent back to Mozambique to hunt for food.
“Every day that is the life we live – a life of fear. It also means less food on top of many difficulties we are facing,” she said.
“Zimbabwean authorities have suggested that we go into the established Tongogara camp, but there is an alternative which is an option of land to settle. That is what we prefer. We also have big families and we don’t think we can afford life at Tongogara. We are also hoping that the situation might change so that we go back home.”
Sithole said the refugees needed clean water and toilets, more tents and food to avert an outbreak of diseases.
Funase Mashaa said she was looking after a very big family, including grandchildren who must be attending school, but escaped to Zimbabwe as the situation became tense in Mozambique.
Elias Mashaa Chingowe said he was terrorised for supporting Frelimo. He was ordered to pay a fine of three cattle as punishment for supporting the ruling party, but the situation did not get better. Chingowe said many Zimbabwean government agencies and non-governmental organisations had been looking after them.
The Mozambique consulate in Mutare could not be contacted to establish the number of refugees that have settled in Zimbabwe since the conflict began.
However, the local community has welcomed the refugees with Chipinge South legislator, Enock Porusingazi saying they shared a lot in common with Mozambicans.
“Let’s not forget history. Mozambique rendered us very good service during atrocities of the colonial regime and people from Zimbabwe had to seek refuge in Mozambique. They welcomed us and it is time also to be with them during these hard times,” he said.
“We share common principles that we are all Africans, neighbours and we share the same culture. We pray that the two governments will come up with a lasting solution. It’s unfortunate that it happened during winter where humans need warmth to cushion them.”
United Nations High Commission for Refugees country representative Robert Tibagwa revealed that on their recent visit in June that they found 235 individuals who fled from Mozambique, but the majority of them were of Zimbabwean origin.
He said they had supported them in many ways and were still looking for information to locate others who could have left Mozambique.
“We went there with the government and distributed various things to them in June. The government has agreed to leave them there and not take them into Tongogara refugee camp because most of them have community support,” he said.
“Everybody who fled is in a sorry state. We will talk to [the World Food Programme] WFP to include them in their hunger alleviation programmes.”
Manicaland Provincial Affairs minister Mandi Chimene said people who fled Mozambique were welcome to live in Zimbabwe.
She said the majority of them had links to Zimbabwe and could easily integrate into various communities.
“If there is danger people can go to the nearest safest area. If we are the safest place they choose, we cannot chase them away. I am a former refugee as well,” she said. “We started off as refugees before going for training.”