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Reluctant returnees: Caprivians face the long way home

Some of the Caprivians during their hunger strike this week
Twenty years after they fled from a bloody conflict, crossing crocodile-infested waters to the safety of Botswana, more than 800 Caprivians at Dukwi Refugee Camp are fighting against forcible repatriation to their homeland. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI has been following the matter over the years

This week, a group of 12 Caprivi elders, representing those who directly witnessed the violent Caprivi Strip separatist conflict of 1998-1999, stood at the doors of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) headquarters for the umpteenth time and once again left without recourse.

SADC, bubbling with resurgent democracies, the region-wide mantra of “open for business” and young leaders, is uncomfortably confronting the long-running disputes that pre-occupied heads of State in the post-colonial period. The Caprivians and their grievances is, unfortunately, a vestige from that period, when civil unrest erupted in several SADC states, following the fall of colonialism.

Where formerly the leaders of the Frontline States fought against apartheid, today, the economy is the new battleground.  The region’s leaders are eager to market to the world a united image of integration and growth potential. That there are 800 Caprivians and 600 Zimbabweans at Dukwi is a prickly reminder that some long running issues loom unresolved behind the smiles of the traditional photo session at each heads of state summit.

The 12 elders, visibly battle-weary and carrying placards denouncing their impending repatriation to Namibia, were certainly an uncomfortable sight for the prim and proper officers at the SADC headquarters. “Even if you sleep here, our principals are not here. We will take your petition and give it to them, but they are not here,” a senior SADC official told the group.

The group had vowed not to leave SADC until their grievances were addressed, a threat previously made and previously unsuccessful.

With a July 11 deadline for forcible repatriation looming, options are running out for the Caprivians and they are fast finding out that they are kicking against the goads of a transformed SADC. As the 12 elders stood at SADC, the remaining Caprivians at Dukwi staged and then abandoned a hunger strike, with authorities there threatening to physically disperse the group that gathered outside a UN office on Wednesday. Ironically, Wednesday was World Refugee Day.

In Gaborone, the elders’ valiant effort to garner the region’s attention only attracted that of the police who rounded them up and transported away from SADC, facing uncertain censure for having left Dukwi without official permission. “We are now at Molepolole Prison waiting for a truck that will take us to Francistown,” one of the elders, Felix Kakula said by phone on Tuesday afternoon.

“Our position is still that we cannot go back to Namibia because of the threats from there. We want a peaceful resolution to our issue of separating Caprivi Strip. Caprivi Strip is not Namibia. SADC must help us secure peaceful talks.”

Yesterday, Kakula and 11 other elders, including women, were in detention at the Francistown Centre for Illegal Immigrants (FCII), having spent the night there after their arrest near SADC HQ.

The group is at the mercy of the Camp’s settlement commandant who, after investigating the matter, has the power to request their release back to Dukwi. By yesterday evening the group was still at

the FCII, a prison-like facility with far more restrictive conditions than the refugee camp.

“They may stay there until they are repatriated on July 11 because authorities expect that by now, everyone should be preparing and leaving ahead of the deadline,” a member of the Caprivians at Dukwi said.

The matter, however, is not as black and white as it would seem. Critics of the Caprivians accuse them of planning to continue secessionist or separatist activity in the Caprivi Strip. This particular allegation is bolstered by the fact that one of the Caprivians’ chief demands is the right to continue membership of the United Democratic Party (UDP), the political organisation that led the secessionist conflict of 1998-1999.

During a 2015 reconnaissance mission arranged by the governments of Botswana and Namibia as well as the UN, to gauge the safety of returnees, a group of Caprivians, including Kakula, enraged Namibian authorities with their demands for UDP recognition.

“We could not assess for social and economic conditions because we don’t know them,” Kakula said in a previous interview.“We told them that we fled for political reasons and that’s what we would assess. We asked whether as UDP members we could come back and they said as long as we were UDP, we could not come back.

“It was a must that we ask these questions, but they felt offended.

 “We were told to pack and go before 10am. From the governor’s chambers, where the order was given, we rushed to Mukusi Cabin (a lodge) and packed our bags.”

For the new crop of SADC leaders, having the citizens of one country as refugees in another, is an embarrassing anomaly that runs counter to the narrative being built to bolster regional investment. Already Zimbabwe is stepping up efforts to draw its citizens out of Dukwi, with meetings at ministerial level having taken place several times this year.

The UN’s reduction of financial support to Botswana also weighs against the Caprivians, as Batswana are increasingly asking why millions of pula are being spent annually to support Dukwi’s residents, in the absence of conflicts or tangible threats in Zimbabwe or Namibia.

The 12 elders who stood at SADC this week, or the group of Caprivian mothers who unsuccessfully staged a sit-in at SADC HQ in November 2016, know they are in for yet another tough journey. “We had to cross the river (Chobe River) with all the animals in there,” Bothwell Ntesa recalls of the 1999 flight to Botswana.

“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’.

“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.” The trip home this time around presents different, but no less difficult challenges.




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