Sanctuary in the Sunburned North


This is part four of a five part assignment for Médecins Sans Frontières on the migration of refugees from impoverished Zimbabwe into South Africa. Photos Copyright ©2009 Austin Andrews / Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Not to be reprinted or reproduced without permission.


As the world’s worst humanitarian crisis outside a conflict zone, the collapse of Zimbabwe has had profound consequences reaching far outside its borders. They’ve been better documented elsewhere so I’ll just skim their surfaces here.

Perhaps the most visible sign has been the mass exodus of people from the cities and towns, most of them escaping to weather the economic storm from the relative stability of neighbouring Botswana and South Africa. Some estimates put the current population of Zimbabwe below 8 million, down from a peak of 12.5 million at the turn of the millennium, with as many as 3.4 million recent emigrants residing in South Africa alone.

This is a visit to the border regions of Beitbridge in Zimbabwe and the nearby refugee camps in the South African town of Musina.

A razorwire fence frames a view of Beitbridge, a Zimbabwean bordertown of 20000 and last port of call for would-be refugees migrating to South Africa.

Guards at a South African border post near Musina.

The three-fence electrified border between Zimbabwe and South Africa retreats into the distance toward Botswana. The border patrol employs a full-time team of workers to patch up sections of the fence snipped during illegal crossings the night before.

Snipped razor wire tailings and a discarded Coke bottle.

The main obstacle to Zimbabweans preparing to cross the border, the crocodile-infested Limpopo River in Matabeleland South is also a stronghold of the Guma-Guma, a gang of rebel bandits who prey on migrants hiding in the scrubland.

Riverscape. A human form camouflaged by reeds prepares to cross the Limpopo (centre of the image to the right of the waterlogged tree; click to enlarge).

15km from the border back in South Africa, the showgrounds in Musina were until recently an informal camp for as many as 4000 homeless Zimbabwean refugees awaiting their asylum papers. The showgrounds were formally closed two weeks ago, although several hundred still sleep every night on its dirt pitch.

Showground girl.

The tap awaits.

Fresh drink.

Social circle between rope links.

Wire link drink.

Suds and shoes.

Queue for asylum papers at a mobile Home Affairs branch.

Washing station at the Uniting Reform Church, a transit shelter for orphans and unaccompanied minors.

Writing practise.

Key combinations.

Pew berths.

Towel-clad boys walk to the shelter shower.

Moving places.

Share plate.

Supply tent.

A sunset toilet installation inside the men’s shelter.

Rock dust in a sunset haze.

Several major NGOs operate out of Musina; in addition to MSF, organisations with a base here include Save the Children, the International Organization for Migration, Oxfam, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and, pictured here, one of several chapters of the Red Cross.

Sunset boys.

A car snout peeks out behind children at a refugee camp.

Twilight washing outside the women’s shelter.

Women’s shelter in a Catholic church.

A story of shadows. Dinnertime at the men’s camp.

A story of shadows II. Settling in for sleep at the men’s camp.


Part five, a return visit to the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg, will be posted here tomorrow.



Austin Andrews is a Vancouver-based photojournalist and occasional filmmaker with a penchant for finding the fantastic in the everyday. Contact him at austin [at] disposablewords [dot] net


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