Back From the Dead
How South Africa became the world's No. 1 asylum destination.
"I was [held] for about two weeks at Spiro Farm, receiving torture every day," he says. "But the three days from the 25th of June to 27th of June, it was the bad days for me. It was when I was put on the electric shocks, they just plug the electric wires on my genitals. They break my legs and my hands. They ordered me to drink 10 gargles of sewage. They ordered me to take some feces. It was part of my meal, I should eat someone's feces."
ZANU-PF made an example of Nhidza, and his torture was watched by hundreds of villagers, he says. When it was over, he was left for dead on the side of a road where his brother managed to find him and bring him to a hospital for treatment. For eight months, sympathetic doctors kept him hidden, and medical documents from this period detail Nhidza's injuries: nerve damage, severe soft-tissue wounds all over his body, and multiple fractures, including in his spine.
In 2009, still on crutches, Nhidza escaped to South Africa. Like many other Zimbabwean refugees, his legal status is precarious. Initially, he was granted a temporary asylum-seeker permit, which has since expired. His application for refugee status was rejected after he was asked to pay the equivalent of $200 by the review officer. Nhidza could not afford the bribe, and today he faces deportation back to Zimbabwe if he is caught by police.
"It is so easy to forget," says Verryn of his country's treatment of refugees like Nhidza. "It is so tempting, once you've managed to climb onto the ladder, to dispossess others who haven't got there. I think that we're suffering from incredible amnesia."
The nightly display of destitution at Central Methodist is particularly harsh when considered in light of the church's role in South Africa's apartheid history. "ANC people would come here to hold meetings during the apartheid years," explains Rachel Subila, a minister at Central Methodist. "And they would run here if there were problems outside, running to the church because the doors were always open, as they are open now." Nelson Mandela is a member of Central Methodist, and his daughter Zindzi was married there in 1993.
While Nhidza tries to avoid deportation, he finds ways to continue to be politically active, creating advocacy groups like the Zimbabwean Victims Foundation Forum and working with an HIV/AIDS group to educate refugees.
What does he think of the newspaper headlines announcing his death in Zimbabwe? "No, no, no, they have missed the point," he says. "I am still alive. … I am still going back for them."
Maura R. O'Connor is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and a freelance foreign correspondent. She is a 2010 Phillips Foundation fellow.
Photograph of Zimbabwean refugees in the Central Methodist Church by Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images.