- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 28, 2009

MUSINA, South Africa

It’s easy to miss the two girls. They are so small they seem to disappear amid the dozen Zimbabwean boys crowded around them along the trash-choked drain. Sofia Chimhangwa, a 14-year-old in a denim skirt, lies on the concrete under a filthy blanket. Her 15-year-old friend sits next to her, braiding a legless Barbie’s hair. Sofia says she survives because the other girl’s 19-year-old boyfriend helps feed them both when the coins they beg for don’t stretch far enough.

“We shouldn’t be here on our own. I know that,” Sofia said. Her big sister helped her get to the border from Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. After eight months in this border town, Sofia is not ready to go home because she cannot yet take money back to her widowed father.

She is among an increasing number of young Zimbabweans setting out on their own to escape their homeland’s economic ruin, bringing both a child’s naive sense of invincibility and a grown-up desire to help their families.

International aid group Save the Children says some 500 Zimbabwean youngsters are in Musina today, compared with about 50 five years ago. But those committed to helping these children are increasingly upset over one question: Where are the girls?

Aid workers say they don’t see enough Sofias - teenage girls - to account for the number that have reportedly come across the border.

Some disappear as maids or “wives” into homes around this dusty mining town split by railroad tracks. On one side of the tracks are the crowded “locations” where blacks were forced to live under apartheid; on the other are the neighborhoods of broad roads and large houses still predominantly inhabited by whites.

Other girls hang back in the shadows at Musina’s truck stops at night along with older prostitutes. There are fears that traffickers are recruiting girls into the sex trade in Johannesburg, 300 miles south, and other South African cities.

As the representative in Musina of Lawyers for Human Rights, Sabelo Sibanda tries to ensure that Zimbabweans aren’t illegally detained or deported before they can apply for refugee status. But he has grown wary of pushing too hard for the release of young girls from a government deportation center here, at least until he can be sure into whose hands they will fall.

He said he found a home with Zimbabwean relatives living in South Africa for two girls whom he met at the center who had crossed the border to look for jobs as waitresses in Cape Town. One was 13, Mr. Sibanda said, adding, “The other said she was about 20, but I don’t believe that.”

He was less successful with another pair, an 18-year-old and a 16-year-old who said they were raped on both sides of the border crossing into South Africa. Mr. Sibanda found them a place at a shelter for abused women. He said the older girl later told him that while on a walk in town, they were approached by men offering them food and clothes. The girls returned to the shelter after an older woman warned them not to listen.

“A few days later, the younger one went to town, and just never came back,” Mr. Sibanda said.

“The level of vulnerability for girls and young women is very, very high,” he said. “There’s so many of them, and they’re so desperate. They’ll just jump at anything.”

In the year or so he has headed the Musina office of the International Organization for Migration, Mohamed Hassan has helped scores of Zimbabwean boys return home. But he said only a few girls came to him for help.

Mr. Hassan got a sense of how many more girls there were when the South African government opened an office at a fair ground to process Zimbabweans seeking asylum. A makeshift refugee camp grew up on a sandy lot across the street, and unaccompanied girls were suddenly visible, making up perhaps 25 percent of all the teens on their own.

“They would come for documentation, and that would be the last time anyone would see them,” he said.

Conditions in the refugee camp turned so bad - there were reports of rape and offers to pay for sex - that the South African government shut the place down.

“It was just some sort of fishing ground for those with ill intentions,” Mr. Hassan said.

An International Organization for Migration study last year found established routes used by human traffickers in South Africa, bringing girls and young women from the countryside into the cities to work as prostitutes or maids.

Forster Kwangwari, a Zimbabwean preacher who ran a shelter for street children in his homeland before opening one here last year, said the refugee girls in Musina are vulnerable.

“People can easily take them, to be domestic workers, to be wives,” Mr. Kwangwari said. “Men adopt them before we see them. They see them before we see them.”

The ragged young Zimbabweans on Musina’s streets know Mr. Kwangwari well, judging by the cries of “Pastor! Pastor!” following him along the main street. He offers steady meals, a chance to go to school and to play, but he has persuaded only 20 boys to come to his shelter, a shedlike building furnished with foam mattresses. Mr. Kwangwari said children living on the streets quickly come to value their independence above everything.

A girl who gave her name as Tracy said she had thought she was doing fine on her own. Then, one evening, the 16-year-old was mugged, raped and shot through the neck. After leaving the hospital - two scars still pink on either side of her neck - she made her way to a shelter and was looking for help to go home.

Tracy had left her widowed father in the Masvingo region of Zimbabwe more than a year ago and found a job almost immediately.

“I was just walking around, and someone said: ‘Come work for me,’ ” she said. She was paid 400 rand (about $50) a month to clean a house and spent 150 rand of her earnings each month to rent a room in a poor neighborhood in the shadow of two iron-gray hills created by mine tailings.

She wasn’t able to save much. So she’s looking for more work before she heads home.

“I want to buy groceries to take to my father,” she said.

Musina is “not a good place,” Tracy said. “There are no jobs. There’s no place to stay. A lot of robbery. Girls are forcing themselves into prostitution to get money. And others are forcing themselves into temporary marriage, to stay with boyfriends for security.”

However, she said she would not discourage any young Zimbabwean girl from coming here, adding that she would likely return one day - a measure of the desperation in her homeland.

With an economic free-fall, collapsed hospital infrastructure and deadly cholera epidemic, aid agencies are feeding most of the population in Zimbabwe. For many Zimbabweans, the only road to survival remains the one leading to South Africa.

First, men left in search of work. As times got worse, women, too, had to leave. And, finally, children.

In some cases, Zimbabwean parents who have established a foothold send for their children, paying transporters known as “amalaitsha” to bring them to South Africa. But children have been abandoned, some with no idea of their parents’ whereabouts, by amalaitsha fleeing police or border guards.

Other children have told aid workers of hopping a train to the border and then simply walking across on their own.

Sibekiwe Moyo came to Musina from the Beitbridge area just across the border, blending in with a van load of neighbors heading to a football match. Her grandmother had sent her to find work.

The bright, shy 14-year-old once wanted to be a teacher. Now she says that’s no longer possible “because I am no longer in school.”

She last attended classes in 2006. Money ran out for fees, then the education system collapsed.

Sibekiwe’s father is dead, and she and her grandmother lost track of her mother and 19-year-old brother when they crossed into South Africa several years ago.

Once in South Africa, Sibekiwe wandered into a housing compound for workers on a farm overlooking the Limpopo River about 25 miles from Musina. She was offered work baby-sitting, seven days a week for about $20 a month, plus food and a place to sleep in one of the compounds mud-walled, tin-roofed shacks.

She hopes to one day save enough to send money to her grandmother.

“I’m not big,” she said. “But I can work and help.”

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