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7-year-old Zimbabwean boy swept up in sting operation at South African border: “I thought I would never see my parents again”

The men told us to write our names on a piece of paper and to write our parents’ names too. I was shaking so badly with fear I could barely write. Some kids urinated on themselves and cried.

  • 1 month ago
  • January 24, 2024
6 min read
Barbed fencing lines the South Africa - Zimbabwe border. Traveling alone or in small groups, vulnerable children can be attacked, robbed, or even sexually assaulted, according to UK Aid Department of International Development. | Photo courtesy of Simon Davis, UK Aid on Flickr Barbed fencing lines the South Africa - Zimbabwe border. Traveling alone or in small groups, vulnerable children can be attacked, robbed, or even sexually assaulted, according to UK Aid Department of International Development. | Photo courtesy of Simon Davis, UK Aid on Flickr
Anonymous silhouette
Journalist’s Notes
Interview Subject
The seven-year-old interview subject has been granted anonymity due to his age and his family’s fear of speaking out. The Orato journalist who conducted the interview obtained verification in the form of a signed affidavit from the guardian, and the interview included the boy’s guardian, who helped him to tell his story. The guardian was hesitant to answer some questions, and guided the boy on which questions to answer, but allowed him to speak freely. Orato retains the affidavit but protects the subject identity.
Background Information
During the festive seasons, borders surrounding Zimbabwe fill with people coming and going for the holidays. Most Zimbabweans have a relative who fled the country to look for greener pastures in South Africa, and as such, families end up being separated. Mothers and fathers live apart from each other and their children. Many Zimbabweans going to South Africa lack legal documentation and get smuggled in. They find odd jobs and send money back to family in Zimbabwe. The holidays create a surge of human trafficking because families want to be together.

HARARE, Zimbabwe ꟷ I felt so excited when my aunt told me I would be going on holiday to South Africa, like I always do. I only see my mom and dad once a year. My aunt packed me a bag of clothes and she told me to fill a second bag with anything I wanted to use on my trip.

I missed my parents so much and could barely wait to leave. With nothing else to do that day, I quickly packed and went to tell my friends. They seemed happy for me. All semester, I worked hard in school and ended up number four in my class because my dad promised, “If you are in the top five, I’ll buy you a new bicycle.” Then, something really bad happened at the South African border.

Police with guns unexpectedly enter our bus, ask the children questions

On the day of my departure, my aunt took me to the bus station to drop me off. She assured me, my parents would be waiting for me when I arrived in South Africa. Along the way, the conductors would take care of me.

With other children my age also traveling, I never felt scared. I even made friends with some of them. The bus began to move, and I never slept; I felt far too excited to see my parents. Looking out the window, I ate my packed lunch. By the time we reached the Beit Bridge border, night began to fall. This is where the trouble began.

Suddenly, men with guns began entering the bus. They wore police uniforms, but the colors looked different than the ones in Harare. Some wore green. Others wore blue, white and black. They all held a stick or a gun. The men began searching the cargo area of the bus and I put my head out the window to see. They held dogs on big chains as they moved around.

They shined their flashlights into the cargo area and when they finished, two men entered the bus and began talking to the conductors. I heard them arguing about something then one of the men turned to the children. “Where are your parents,” he asked, walking row by row.

When he got to me, I told the man my parents awaited me on the other side of the South African border, and I was alone on the bus. “How did you get here,” he asked. “My aunt brought me,” I responded. He asked our ages then told us to move outside, but to leave our bags. I felt okay until I walked by the conductors and saw handcuffs on their wrists, guarded by police with guns.

The armed men took us to a room near the border

Outside, I saw other kids my age moving out from other buses and many men in chains. “Are we being kidnapped,” I worried. “Will they kill us?” Fear settled in as darkness fell and I questioned if I would ever make it to South Africa. My heart pounded, wondering if we did something wrong.

“Maybe they will take us to prison,” I thought. The men told us to write our names on a piece of paper and to write our parents’ names too. I was shaking so badly with fear I could barely write. Some kids urinated on themselves and cried.

Looking around, everyone was a stranger. The only name I knew was the conductor’s and I couldn’t talk to him. I became convinced my life was over. The wind began blowing and I heard strange bird noises. Then, I suddenly felt extremely hungry. The men took us to a room and told us to sit on the benches. People who they took earlier already occupied the benches, while others sat on the floor.

I lowered myself down and sitting on the floor, my legs eventually began to cramp. “I will never see my mom and dad again,” I thought, “but I can’t run away. There is nowhere to go.” Then, I heard my mom’s voice in my head calming me down. I sang a song in my mind in her voice because I wanted to see her so badly.

Police intercept hundreds of children trafficked from Zimbabwe to South Africa

As the night went on, the police told us to return to our buses to be transported back to Harare. When we boarded the bus, the policemen replaced the conductors and drove us back. No one ever told us what was happening, through the whole ordeal.

In the darkness, I could not tell where we were and continued to feel so afraid, wondering where we might end up. The bus remained eerily quiet. No one made a sound for fear of being beaten by the four soldiers on the bus.

In the black of night, it felt like the most terrible experience of my life. When we finally reached Harare, I climbed off the bus and saw my aunt waiting for me by the door. She grabbed me and a sense of relief washed over me. My aunt put me in a taxi and we headed home.

I began crying and couldn’t stop. My aunt told me the conductors had reached out and she knew what was happening; that I should not talk about what I went through that night for fear of reprisal. Eventually my parents came to Zimbabwe to see me and my dad brought me my new bicycle.

[Zimbabwe’s Border Management Authority conducted the sting with support from the South African Police Service and Home Affairs at the Beitbridge border post on Saturday, December 2, 2023, intercepting 443 children under the age of eight, many of whom were being trafficked. In addition to trafficked children, in recent months they intercepted 100,000 moving illegally, 279 stolen cars, and 396 blasting cartridges. Children like the interview subject often get swept up in and traumatized by the stings.]

Translation Disclaimer

Translations provided by Orato World Media are intended to result in the end translated document being understandable in the end language. Although every effort is made to ensure our translations are accurate we cannot guarantee the translation will be without errors.

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