How the Namibian refugees came to be in Botswana

Geoffrey Mwilima was also left with scars after an assault by government forces in the aftermath of the 1999 assault
Geoffrey Mwilima was also left with scars after an assault by government forces in the aftermath of the 1999 assault

Two years ago, a group of the Namibians at Dukwi Refugee Camp opened up to Mmegi Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI about how they escaped from heated conflict in the Caprivi Strip in 1999, crossed the treacherous Okavango area and arrived in Botswana

Tensions had long been rising. The inhabitants of a 20-kilometre wide and 400 kilometre-long piece of paradise nestled amongst the Zambezi, Chobe, Linyanti and Okavango rivers said they were being brutally oppressed.

The Caprivi Strip wanted to be free of Namibia and residents were willing to use force to extricate themselves from “Big Brother’s” grip. The popular secessionist party in the region, the United Democratic Party (UDP) had formed a militant wing, the Caprivi Liberation Army (CLA).

Something was going to happen and something did. Between the October 1998 discovery of a CLA training camp by the Namibia Defence Force (NDF) and the August/September 1999 attacks by the Caprivians on government installations, matters moved quickly.

Then president, Sam Nujoma, declared a state of emergency and the NDF moved in, crushing the rebellion amidst reports of random beatings, torture and murders. Even today, rumours persist of mass graves, although humanitarian agencies have yet to verify these.

An estimated 3,000 Caprivians, including military and political leaders of the rebels, supporters, sympathisers and ordinary villagers, found themselves trapped, hunted and in danger.

The only place to run to was east to Botswana, but the perils were high.

“It was a very tough journey,” explains Bothman Ntesa, a Caprivian who for the past 17 years has lived at the Dukwi Refugee Camp.

“We had to cross the river (Chobe River) with all the animals in there. Some took four to five days in the bush before they could cross.

“There was no opportunity to say ‘let me take a chance, maybe there are no crocodiles there.’

“The security forces were at the border making sure people don’t cross into Botswana.”

Ntesa’s compatriot and fellow Dukwi resident, Felix Kakula takes up the tale.

“People were risking crossing at night when the security forces were asleep,” he says.

“Others were shot at, with the bullets going through their bags. Others were caught and taken back to Caprivi.

“It was not an easy thing. Those who managed to cross the river, also had to face the lions.

“We praise God because no one lost their lives running to Botswana.” Ntesa and Kakula, together with Tyson Mujela and Mushe Limbo are amongst veterans of the Caprivi conflict. Threats of violence, persecution and even worse, still prevail in Namibia, the refugees argue. While Windhoek has emphatically said there are no threats for returnees, the fact that the refugees are still pushing for secession under the now banned UDP, mean such promises may be untenable.

Further complicating matters is that some of the plus-900 Namibian refugees at Dukwi are former armed combatants in the 1999 conflict and continue to demand separation from Namibia.

The four men recall that the first group to cross into Botswana consisted of 92 people who were CLA fighters, still armed with their weapons. Another 102 followed, who consisted of the political leaders, including Caprivi independence leader and UDP founder, Mishake Muyongo.

“The first group that crossed handed over their arms to Botswana soldiers at the borders, before being transported to Linyanti. From there, they went to Mahalapye and then the Kagisong Centre in Gaborone,” says Ntesa.

According to Kakula, Botswana as a destination was an instinctively natural choice for the fleeing Caprivians.

“Namibia and Botswana are neighbours and we knew that Botswana was aware of what was happening in the Caprivi Strip. When they saw us come running, they knew there was a problem,” he says.

The 3,000 or so Caprivians settled into Dukwi and over the years, more than 2,000 returned to their motherland. Today, the four men estimate more than 1,000 Caprivians are still in Dukwi, who include young children born in the camp.

The refugees have built their own community within the camp, an extension of the Caprivi Strip and a kind of state within a state.

For 16 years, through their generations, the Caprivians at Dukwi could only dream of their heartland and then in 2015, five of them took part in a historic mission back to Caprivi Strip to assess conditions for the purposes of repatriation.

The refugees had long resisted participating in previous proposals for such missions, citing fear for their security, but last year, with the nudging of government and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, they finally gave in.

The mission, however, was a disaster with the refugees sent back abruptly reportedly under armed escort for “politicising the assessment”. A Namibian minister later singled out and blasted Kakula in the Namibian parliament.

The first visit back since the treacherous crossing 16 years before, had ended in more terror for the refugees.

*Mmegi first published this article in July 2016. It is here reproduced in order to provide context for the latest developments in the matter

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