The Mercury, 22 April 2008

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Thomas Chamiso, 32, an Ethiopian refugee, ran the Thembikosi Trading Store in Fulang Street in Zweletemba township, Worcester. A month ago, he was one of 50 foreigners who were chased out of town by local residents. Chamiso and his four cousins fled Zweletemba with only their wallets and cellphones. They lost their refugee permits, business papers, financial records, identity documents and driver's licences. hey slept on a municipal lawn for three nights before finding temporary lodgings in Bellville. The Cape Town Refugee Centre, which is funded by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), gave the men a month's rent and food money. After that, they were on their own. "Maybe we will sleep on the street. What will we eat? "We have nothing. How can I start a business again? I have nothing left, nothing. Who will give us money?" Chamiso said. "We have lost our humanity in Worcester." As one drives from the bustling town of Worcester, where hundreds of street vendors clog the pavements selling cheap Chinese imports, through the industrial area and into the peaceful township by the only access road - a bridge over a waterless, pebbled river bed - it is hard to imagine that this place, where the shacks have neat gardens and children play in the streets, could have been the scene of violent all-night looting of 23 foreign-owned shops. Foreigners, about 20 from Somalia, 15 from Ethiopia and a handful from Zimbabwe, the Congo, China, Pakistan and Bangladesh, were driven away on the night of March 7. The violence is said to have erupted after two shooting incidents in which a teenager was killed and a woman was injured. Two Somalis were arrested in connection with the shootings, one on a charge of murder and one on a charge of attempted murder. Both were released on bail and are to appear in the Worcester Magistrate's Court on April 25. In the aftermath of the shootings, locals looted all the foreign-owned shops in the township. Abdi Nur Abdi, who owns the now-flattened shop where the teenager was killed, said the same group of youngsters had robbed the shop three times. He said he had reported the cases to the police, but that the police had done nothing to protect his shop. Joyce Tlou, the co-ordinator of the Human Rights Commission, lamented: "What if next time it is women, or old people, or the disabled? Why are there double standards when foreigners are involved?" Tlou said it was important to teach police officers across the country about their duty to protect refugees - who had the same rights as citizens - apart from the right to vote or run for office. One of the first organisations to offer aid to the affected refugees was Islamic Relief. Abdi and a large group of fellow Somalis also asked the University of Cape Town's Law Clinic to take up their case. Fatima Khan, the refugee rights project co-ordinator at the law clinic, appointed a team of lawyers and researchers to investigate the case. She said the refugees' case would be taken to the Equality Court. "Our intention is to seek compensation for our clients as well as force police to be informed that it is unconstitutional to refuse protection to a person on the basis of nationality. "Furthermore, it is true that the police did not arrest anyone even though they knew of and witnessed the theft or looting. Items as big as fridges and counters were stolen, and police have made no attempt to investigate or recover stolen goods." Worcester municipal representatives, local community leaders, NGOs, lawyers and religious leaders have met refugees and the community to discuss how the situation can be resolved. But those ejected from Worcester seem to be stuck in a political quagmire while they wait for answers and aid. Sifiso Mbuyisa, the director of social dialogue and human rights in Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool's office, said it was difficult to resolve the situation because the refugees and migrants were not homogeneous, and even the Somali community was divided. Since all those affected were not sticking together, the government and the NGO sector did not have a single forum to communicate with and to provide assistance to. Mbuyisa, who is a trained conflict mediator, said that he had encouraged the Zweletemba Somalis and the Islamic Relief representatives, whom he had met on Friday, to get together all those who were affected to lobby the government. Similarly, different departments in the national government and the various levels of government were also acting separately and, therefore, their efforts were also not co-ordinated, he said. South African shopkeeper "Lani" Rasi, whose parents own Vukuzenzele spaza shop, said that it was as though the community "were just hungry for violence". He believed it would be safe for the foreigners to return, because the mayor and local pastors had told the community to reconcile with them. At one of two community meetings held since the attacks, community members said the foreign shop owners could come back on condition that they did not open shops next to South African shops, that they employed South Africans "for the sake of communication" and that they involved themselves in community affairs by attending community meetings, Worcester police spokesman Mzikayise Moloi said. Moloi said the Somalis would be given an opportunity at the next community meeting to explain their needs and side of the story. Members of the local community policing forum and religious leaders had offered to act as mediators. Moloi said the perception of many locals that Somalis were murderous and intent on "killing our children" was an issue that needed to be dealt with. "Locals don't acknowledge how many people their children have killed," he said.