Page last updated at 18:09 GMT, Thursday, 22 May 2008 19:09 UK

Scramble to flee South Africa

Immigrants stand next to their tents in a informal refugee camp outside a police station in Primrose east of Johannesburg, South Africa, Thursday May 22

By Karen Allen
BBC News, Johannesburg

It is six o'clock in the evening and there is a mad scramble to bundle bags, tins of oil and young children on to the last night train out to the border with Zimbabwe.

There is still an hour to go, but the passengers have already grabbed their seats and are settling down for the 12-hour ride.

My South African friends do not want me to go, but I am afraid
Zimbabwean Theresa Gwatiringa

Mingling with the traders who travel this route regularly are Zimbabwean refugees, terrified by the xenophobic violence they have witnessed in the past few days, in settlements in and around Johannesburg.

Anti-foreigner sentiment has led to homes being destroyed, women being raped and people being burnt alive.

Not what you expect in a country preparing to welcome visitors for the 2010 World Cup.

"My South African friends do not want me to go," confides retired schoolmistress Theresa Gwatiringa, who made South Africa her adopted home a year ago.

"But I am afraid, so now I must go," she sighs.

When she first arrived, South Africans welcomed Zimbabweans like her with open arms.

Now foreigners are blamed for stealing jobs and rising crime.

Mozambicans wait to board a bus to take them home
Mozambique has provided buses to take about 9,000 people home

The targeted attacks of the past few days have shaken the confidence of people like Ms Gwatiringa.

It has made the prospect of returning to her modest plot of land not far from Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, attractive - even if it means hardship, soaring inflation and a country in disarray.

It is the same for 24-year-old Maurice who scraped together the money for the bus fare to take him back to Zimbabwe.

"This is not a safe place... they were beating foreigners," he says.

"Even the place where you stay they come and destroy all your property, they smash everything and that's not good."

Camp fires

A half-hour drive away from where the Zimbabweans are beating a hasty retreat, you find Primrose, an eastern suburb of South Africa's commercial capital.

Here thousands of miserable migrants from Mozambique are trying to fend off the Johannesburg chill, huddling around small improvised fires in the dark.

I have never seen anything like this before
Coach driver Jorge Meneles

They also want to leave but did not make it on to the 10 coaches laid on by their country's embassy earlier in the day to give them safe passage home.

"I think I am going to be doing this run several times," laments coach driver Jorge Meneles, who at lunchtime had been grappling with a list of Mozambican names which he was trying to match up with the limited seats on his bus.

"I have never seen anything like this before - not in South Africa. It is very sad."

People at an informal refugee camp outside Primrose Police Station in Johannesburg, South Africa
Many of those who have fled the xenophobic attacks had good jobs

This sprawling bus stop-cum refugee camp outside Primrose police station, is situated in Africa's most prosperous state, not in Somalia or Sudan's Darfur region.

These are people used to living in homes and being warm.

Bicycles, radios and kitchenware scattered next to suitcases hint that these people were not destitute.

They once had good jobs working as gardeners, taxi drivers and farm labourers, but have come to be seen as a threat to citizens of the country that has hosted them.

In the words of so many South Africans who roundly condemn the violence, foreigners do not deserve to be treated in this way.

Even so, the South African government should have seen the resentment coming.

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