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CityPress - - News - SERAH MAKONDETSA, AMABHUNGANE edi­to­rial@amabhungane.org

‘Zomwe nd­i­naona ndi­malila mpaka­pano [When I think of what I went through I cry un­til to­day]. Imag­ine – we stayed two days with­out eat­ing. “We were only given wa­ter at 12pm the next day. Hon­estly, I nearly saw death,” said Foster Chi­wawa of his or­deal at the hands of those who ab­ducted him and more than 40 other Malaw­ians at the South African border with Zim­babwe.

“I still think about those peo­ple we left be­hind. There were skulls of dead peo­ple there.”

Chi­wawa and his fel­low trav­ellers were forcibly marched to a tem­po­rary camp in the bush near Beit Bridge where they were held hostage. Vic­tims told AmaBhungane they were threat­ened with death if they or their South African-based rel­a­tives failed to pay up to have them re­leased.

Malaw­ian-based “agents”, who book vic­tims on coaches and travel with them, are part of a syndicate who of­fer se­duc­tively dis­counted fares.

A Malaw­ian woman based in South Africa told a sim­i­lar tale and paid R5 000 to se­cure the re­lease of her ab­ducted brother and his fam­ily.

Blan­tyre po­lice spokesper­son El­iz­a­beth Di­vala con­firmed they had re­ceived reports from “peo­ple who have been duped by these agents”.

“We have been re­ceiv­ing many cases. They hap­pen be­cause peo­ple want to use the cheap­est means of trans­port. Our ap­peal is that they should be go­ing to re­li­able of­fices and not to any­one they meet at the de­pot,” Di­vala said.

Chi­wawa, from Blan­tyre, told amaBhungane he had paid 79 000 Malaw­ian kwacha (R1 425) to an agent at a ware­house close to the city’s Wenela coach sta­tion for a re­turn trip to Durban, where he planned to visit his sis­ter.

An agent told him he needed about MK80 000 (R1 440) for trans­port costs and about MK150 000 (R2 706) to show South African border of­fi­cials that he had the means to sup­port him­self dur­ing his visit.

With his pass­port in hand, Chi­wawa had no doubt he would ar­rive in South Africa safely. He also didn’t be­come sus­pi­cious when he heard the agents on the phone pro­vid­ing up­dates on the bus’s where­abouts.

“The bus was mov­ing fast but when we were ap­proach­ing the […] border it re­duced its speed. We ar­rived at Beit Bridge at 7pm and there we were told to get into two Quan­tum buses parked there. One of the agents said we would meet at Musina,” he said.

But in­stead of pass­ing through the border post, the two buses turned off and drove into the bush. They stopped and the pas­sen­gers were told to start walk­ing af­ter a group of six men.

“With our lug­gage we started fol­low­ing them, crossed the Lim­popo River and we walked the whole night till dawn. Then we got to some place where we were bluntly told that both buses we took from Malawi and the two Quan­tum buses had gone back and that we should pro­vide an ex­tra R1 500 to get to Johannesburg,” he said.

Chi­wawa said some peo­ple couldn’t come up with the money be­cause rel­a­tives they called didn’t be­lieve them.

On the sec­ond day, those whose rel­a­tives were reluc­tant to send them money were told to stand in a sep­a­rate group. Point­ing to hu­man skulls, aban­doned lug­gage and shoes on the ground, one of the ab­duc­tors said: “See your friends here? They also said they couldn’t pay.”

“My sis­ter sent R1 500 to these peo­ple. At 11pm that night about 34 of us left, leav­ing be­hind those whose rel­a­tives had not sent money for their re­lease.” Chi­wawa has no idea what hap­pened to them.

Those who paid were herded onto a bus and driven to Johannesburg. They slept in a ware­house overnight and were dropped in the mid­dle of city the next day.

A Malaw­ian woman based in Midrand told amaBhungane a sim­i­lar story, about how her brother had phoned her, beg­ging her to res­cue him, his wife and his child who were kid­napped en route to South Africa and held in the bush.

“I had in­vited my brother and his fam­ily to come and

LAZARUS NEDI, TIMES GROUP, MALAWI.

DARK BUSI­NESS The of­fices in Blan­tyre, Malawi, where at least one of the syn­di­cates kid­nap­ping and ex­tort­ing money from Malaw­ians trav­el­ling to Joburg op­er­ate from.PHOTO:

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