Fleeing war, Somalis are targets of violence in adopted home

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MASIPHUMELELE, 10 October 2006 (IRIN) – Dozens of Somalis have allegedly been killed in South Africa’s Western Cape Province in the past few months in what appears to be an escalating campaign of xenophobic violence.

South Africa already struggles with some of the world’s highest rates of violent crime, and is home to immigrant groups from throughout the continent. But Somalis in this region say the killings – as well as a string of brutal robberies and assaults – reflect a growing national trend fuelled in part by destitution and prejudice.

Community leaders in Cape Town, the provincial capital, say at least 32 Somalis were killed between July and September. Police told IRIN they couldn’t confirm the figure because records are not typically organised by the ethnicity of the victims. However, police said they have begun investigating individual cases and are attempting to verify whether the violence is part of a broader pattern.

“If you look at our refugee communities over the past three months, you can clearly see that the Somali community is being targeted,” said Superintendent Billy Jones, spokesperson for the South African Police Service (SAPS) in the Western Cape.

Jones said attacks, mainly robbery related, have typically occurred in squatter camps and other impoverished neighbourhoods where Somalis have taken a foothold as informal traders. Cutthroat competition for trading outlets has escalated tensions within communities and successful Somali shopkeepers are sometimes perceived as a threat to more entrenched businesses, Jones said.

Yet unmotivated violence appears to be on the increase. Three Somalis were recently killed in separate attacks in the sprawling townships of Khayelitsha and Delft, Jones said. “In these last three incidents, it was clear cut murder. Cold-blooded murder.”

Jones said SAPS Provincial Commissioner for the Western Cape Mzwandile Petros has convened two meetings with Somali representatives in recent months and has asked local police stations to beef up routine patrols near Somali businesses.

But personal accounts of individual Somali immigrants in South Africa illustrate the collective sense of vulnerability that pervades the community.

DIFFICULT JOURNEY ENDS WITH INSECURITY

Thousands of Somalis have flocked to South Africa in recent years, many fleeing the longstanding violence that has plagued the Horn of Africa since 1991. Most make the long journey in search of small-business opportunities and a chance at physical safety, and officially register as asylum seekers.

Yet newcomers are often dismayed by the violence they encounter around Cape Town, a global city on the southern coast popular with international tourists.

“When I was deciding whether or not to come to South Africa to make a better living, I heard that Cape Town was the safest city in the country,” said Ali Yusef, 29, who left Mogadishu in 2002. “When I got here, and so many people were dying, I was confused. And now, it’s getting worse, especially in the last two or three months.”

There is no credible official figure of the number of Somalis in South Africa because most Somalis fleeing the war enter the country without official documentation. Community leaders in the Western Cape estimate between 6,000 and 7,000 Somalis live in the region, though Somali communities can be found in all nine provinces of the country.

One of those who made the long journey from Somalia is Abdi Agakonbo, 35. He left Mogadishu a year ago, after three members of his family were killed in the civil conflict. Unemployed, he begged from others to buy a ticket on a ship to Tanzania, and then hitched a ride to Mozambique. Once there, he travelled by foot for 37 days – walking from settlement to settlement every day, sleeping near the road for safety.

After crossing the South Africa border, he convinced a taxi driver he’d give him $50 if he drove him to Cape Town. On the streets of the city, Agakonbo called a number he’d been given back in Mogadishu. A Somali immigrant who runs several convenience stands around the city came to meet him, paid the taxi driver, and offered Agakonbo an entry-level position manning one of his stands.

Today, Agakonbo sells sweets, cold drinks and single cigarettes under a tarp near a busy street. He earns $3 a day – barely enough to cover the $55 he pays in rent to live in a three-room apartment with 17 other Somali men. “But back in Mogadishu, there are no jobs. I would earn nothing,” Agakonbo reasoned.

Agankobo’s story is typical of Somalis in Cape Town, mostly young men who arrive penniless and work as assistants to more established Somali business people in the townships. Many point to the irony of facing such acute hostility in their adopted home.

“I came here because of the civil war in my country,” Agankobo said. “If I can die here just as I can die at home, then sometimes I think it would be better to be at home.”

PATTERN OF VIOLENCE AROUND COUNTRY

Somali residents in and around Cape Town are quick to point out that it is not the only region where Somalis feel unsafe. According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, Somalis were driven out of KwaNobuhle, Eastern Cape Province in 2001, and related violence was reported elsewhere in the province last year. Similar hostilities have also been documented in the Gauteng, Free State, and North West provinces.

Abdi Hassan, 37, says he’s experienced xenophobia in three different provinces. Soon after arriving from Mogadishu two years ago, he soon became used to insults while selling imported Chinese goods in squalid neighbourhoods near Cape Town.

“People around me called me ‘friend of a dog,’ ‘foreigner,’ and they spit on me,” Hassan said of his arrival in the area two years ago. “Even the lowliest man in the neighbourhood, such as a drunk in the gutter, would curse me.”

Hassan said South African traders often felt threatened by Somali business owners, who tended to charge lower mark-ups for similar goods. “The local shop owners come to you and say, ‘You rob my business; give me something for free,’ so you give them these things – sweets, cigarettes, whatever.”

Hassan said he was eventually assaulted by three men, who strapped a belt around his neck as if to kill him and warned him to leave the area. The criminals took his goods and money, but he survived the attack.

Shaken, Hassan said he relocated to a township near Kimberly, in the Northern Cape Province, which he hoped would be more welcoming. But soon after finding work at a tiny Somali-owned shop, Hassan alleged locals came in and shot and killed his co-worker. He recounted that criminals held a cocked gun to his own head and warned him that Somalis would be killed if they didn’t leave the township.

Still looking for safety, Hassan said he relocated to another poor neighbourhood in Limpopo Province in the north. Local residents appeared to like him, he said, but soon a local resident approached him saying she heard of plans to murder him. Hassan said he tried to open a case with the local police, but was told that there was no evidence to go on. Unable to find protection, he again fled.

SEARCHING FOR ROOTS OF HOSTILITY

What is striking about the attacks against Somalis is that they are apparently targeted above all others. Somalis often live in impoverished neighbourhoods among migrants from other nations – Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo – but say they face the brunt of local hostilities.

On the streets of townships around Cape Town, Somali shops usually look similar to locally owned businesses, and both tend to sell common items such as popular canned foods, cleaning supplies and toiletries. While some local business owners say Somali traders threaten their livelihoods, some Somalis dismiss these assertions.

“That’s business competition!” said Hassan Farah, 25, who operates a tuck shop near Mossel Bay, 400 km to the east. “People can say what they want, but don’t they make their own prices? The people who kill are not business people. They’re gangsters.”

In the absence of a clear reason for the violence, many Somalis grasp for motivations. Some of the East African immigrants speculate that they are set apart from their neighbours because of the differences in their language or their physical appearance. Others wonder if it’s because they are Muslim. Others admit they have no idea.

“I have to ask why it happens that we are killed every day,” Farah said. “If we knew the reason, if we were told, ‘You are being killed because of that,’ then we could avoid it.”

AFTER LOCAL UNREST, RETURNING TO TRY AGAIN

Of course, though the particular xenophobia against Somalis appears to be widespread, it’s not universal. Even in the most impoverished areas, local residents and Somalis are working to negotiate non-violent solutions.

In August, local business leaders organised a campaign to drive Somalis out of Masiphumelele, a township 25km southeast of Cape Town. A few days later, on the night of 28 August, hundreds of residents looted all 27 Somali-run businesses, and 71 Somali residents were evacuated with the help of police and a local church. By morning, six businesses had been completely destroyed.

Last week, Raqiyou Yusuf, 31, opened her store in Masiphumelele for the first time since the unrest. Yusuf arrived in the area eight years ago, and she has many friends. As she stood in the doorway of her small store, customers popped in and out, returning her greeting of “Hello, sister.” Some offered her a hug.

Because her store was nearly cleaned out in the looting, Yusuf spent more than $1,000 to replenish the goods stolen. Holding her receipts in the dirt-floored store, she told IRIN she wasn’t sure how long she would stay. Somali businesses in Masiphumelele will soon meet with local business leaders in an effort to address the hostilities, but Yusuf is still anxious.

“I opened yesterday, but I’m scared also,” Yusuf said. “I didn’t buy a lot of stock, just a few cans and things. Also, I haven’t yet brought my four children back here, and so now they are not in school. I just want to see what will happen and see if it will remain peaceful.”

All reporting by Gretchen L. Wilson, © 2006

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