RAMOKGWEBANA, Botswana – It is just after 4 a.m. when the bus carrying passengers from Botswana to Zimbabwe comes to a stop at the Ramokgwebana border post. As passengers in the bus prepare to nap while they wait for the border to open at 6 a.m., one of the conductors, Joe (not his real name), calls out to the passengers: “Those who are not OK, please come forward.” Six women and three men get up and gather their belongings; one of the women puts a baby on her back.
They are about to make their way on foot through one of the many illegal crossing routes used by so-called border-jumpers – men and women who travel between Zimbabwe and Botswana without visas. According to Joe, the route they are going to use is “very safe”, as long as travellers are accompanied by someone who knows their way around the bush. In this case, that’s Joe himself, who will accompany them by foot and then return to his bus to drive the rest of the passengers through the border once it opens for the day. Joe says he takes border-jumpers through the bush at least three times a week. For a fee of 300 pula (just under $30), he says he can ensure that each of his customers crosses safely.
Despite Joe’s assurances, the women who use these illegal crossing points are well aware of the dangers they might face in the bush. They have all encountered, or heard stories about, notorious gangs known as “gumagumas”, who regularly ambush border-jumpers to rob them and, in many cases, to rape the women.
Mildred Nkomo, a 35-year-old traveling home to visit her children in Bulawayo, is one of the six Zimbabwean women jumping the border this morning. She says she is well aware of the dangers, as she once encountered one of these gangs. But she has no choice, as she has exhausted her annual 90 days of visa-free entry for Zimbabwean nationals visiting Botswana, which is where she works as a domestic worker.
Due to a lack of economic opportunities in their country, many Zimbabweans seek work elsewhere, notably Botswana and South Africa. This migration trend began in the early 2000s and reached its peak in 2008, when Zimbabwe was wracked by political strife, a food crisis and a cholera outbreak. The trend has endured to this day, as Zimbabwe continues to suffer from high levels of unemployment.
Nkomo says that in December 2015, when she was crossing with a large group of more than 15 men and women, they found themselves confronted by eight men carrying knives and machetes.
“Everyone just ran for their lives in different directions,” she says. “I was lucky as I managed to get away with a friend and with one of the men in our group.” Nkomo says it usually takes about one hour to cross the border, but that it took much longer this time, as they lost their guide in the commotion.
“But we were very lucky – some of the people I was with were caught, and [the attackers] took their cellphones and all the money they had, after beating them up,” she says. “It could have been much worse, as we have heard many stories of these gumagumas raping the women that they catch in the bush.”
Reports of robberies and rape along Zimbabwe’s borders with Botswana and South Africa have been well documented by NGOs. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) first reported on these abuses in 2009. More recently, a 2012 report from a women’s shelter in the border town of Musina estimated that three in 10 female border-jumpers had been gang-raped.
Johnson Emeka from the Africa Diaspora Forum, an NGO that advocates for the rights of both legal and illegal immigrants in South Africa, says his organization has also come across many cases of abuse and rape perpetrated by gangs on border-jumpers. He noted that they have also received numerous reports of women being abused by law enforcement officers at these border posts.
“Immigration officers and police officers sometimes also take advantage of the situation of these women and rape them,” he says, noting that in those cases, the rape isn’t usually violent, but it is non-consensual, as the officers force women to have sex with them or else face arrest. “Some of these women oblige these officers so they can have safe passage through the border.”
Emeka also says that despite the numerous reports of abuse his organization receives, he and his staff are unable to take legal action – most victims are not willing to testify because of stigma, as well as their status as illegal immigrants. “Coming to court to testify puts them in danger of arrest and deportation,” he says.
Save the Children’s South Africa branch has also noted an alarming trend of minors moving illegally between Zimbabwe and South Africa. According to Wilson Paulo, the program lead for their Children on the Move program, girls crossing into South Africa illegally are also exposed to threat of rape.
“This crossing is essentially smuggling, and smuggling can easily turn into trafficking, so there is also that added risk,” he says.
Nkomo, meanwhile, says she won’t stop jumping the border from Zimbabwe to Botswana and back again, despite the risks. With children to support in Zimbabwe, she has little choice but to continue.