SA Police Raid Zimbabweans' Shelter

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Sifuna Zonke
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Feb 1 2008 19:27
SA Police Raid Zimbabweans' Shelter

By CELEAN JACOBSON

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) - South African police raided a downtown church Wednesday night where hundreds of Zimbabweans had taken refuge, hauling people in pajamas to a police station in scenes reminiscent of apartheid-era raids.

Bishop Paul Verryn sheltered about 1,200 people at the Central Methodist Church, which has become a haven for Zimbabweans fleeing their own country's political and economic meltdown. Verryn said police arrived around 11 p.m. Two hours later, police were still taking people by the van load to the central police station. Authorities, who have been struggling with the migrant influx, did not immediately explain the purpose of the raid.

Verryn said he had been told police were looking for illegal immigrants, drugs and weapons. Zimbabwe's economic and political woes have driven hundreds of thousands from their homeland, many for neighboring countries. South Africa is believed to have one of the largest communities of Zimbabweans, with estimates consistently refer to 3 million Zimbabweans living here. Police at headquarters declined to comment and those at the scene said they were not authorized to speak to reporters. But police could be heard asking people taken from the church for their residency permits. Police spokesman were not immediately available for comment. "I saw people assaulted when they were put in the vans," Verryn said. "When I said, "You can't do this,' they told me not to interfere. They pulled me down the stairs by the scruff of my neck and one police officer kicked something at me."

Outside the church, hundreds of men, many barefooted and bare-chested, lined up in an orderly fashion before being marched into the police vans. A handful of men tried to run away but police corralled most of them. "This is a church. We thought we were safe," said Fredrick Chibungu, who has been in the country for seven months and is waiting for his asylum papers to be finalized. "They are going to deport us. There is nothing we can do. It is better to go back home and make a plan to come back," he said. Police eventually allowed about 100 women whose documents had been found in order back inside the church, where they were looking after a number of children.

As the raid concluded about 2:30 a.m., police also allowed several hundred men with proper documentation to return to the building. They immediately began searching for their belongings while members of church began tidying up - blankets and bedding lay abandoned on floor where those seeking refuge sleep crowded next to one another. Verryn, a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle, said it was the first such incident in the four years since he opened the church's doors after seeing increasing number of Zimbabweans on the streets of Johannesburg.