Between a war and looting, Somalis linger in Mayfair

Nuur Abdi Shakuul, right, and his employee, Lubaan Hassan Ahmed, sit on a bed in the Mayfair lodge where they have been staying since their Pretoria store was looted. (Greg Nicolson)

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Somali traders have been hit hard by the recent xenophobic looting. Fleeing Soweto and other areas, many have landed in Mayfair, Johannesburg. GREG NICOLSON visits Princess Street, meeting those who fled war for a better life and who have now fled their places of refuge. They have no idea of what life holds next.

Four beds, 10 stories without a next chapter. Two people sleep on each bed, with two on the floor. Nuur Abdi Shakuul sits in the Mayfair lodge, corner 8th and Princess Streets. Through the window, the sun hits jackets hung on hooks. Blankets have been folded at the head of each bed. A pair of jeans sit with the remaining mould of legs. The 10 Somalis cramped into the single bedroom have no more possessions.

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Nuur Abdi Shakuul, right, and his employee, Lubaan Hassan Ahmed, sit on a bed in the Mayfair lodge where they have been staying since their Pretoria store was looted. (Greg Nicolson)

 

Shakuul, wearing a lime green shirt, jeans and leather sandals, says his Atteridgeville store, BH Supermarket, was looted last week. They started with the big supermarket behind his store. Set it alight. He got a warning call and tried to lock up. But the mob was too many. They tore down the BH gate and Shakuul was kicked in chest, causing internal bleeding, he was told later at the hospital. “We asked them why are they doing this. The answer was, ‘We don’t want foreigners in our country.’”

“I’m broke now. A few days ago I was a boss,” says Shakuul, 37, from Somalia. The police arrived about an hour later – the looting was still continuing – and told Shakuul they can save him but not his shop. He has six children and now can’t provide for them.

“This is not new, every year it’s there,” says Lubaan Hassan Ahmed, 27, who worked for Shakuul. Ahmed once had his own store near Lenasia. It was looted in 2012. Since then, after he lost everything, he has been an employee. Before setting up in Atteridgeville, Shakuul also had other stores. He was looted twice in Hammanskraal in 2013.

Somalis who fled the looting in Soweto sit on beds in a lodge. Ten, and sometimes up to 15, people sleep in the room, the size of a standard single bedroom. (Greg Nicolson)

Somalis who fled the looting in Soweto sit on beds in a lodge. Ten, and sometimes up to 15, people sleep in the room, the size of a standard single bedroom. (Greg Nicolson)

Mayfair’s Princess Street in Johannesburg is a refuge for Somalians who fled the looting that spread through Soweto and parts of Gauteng in the last two weeks. Conversations turn into a crowds and there are too many stories to record. Violence, displacement, loss and uncertainty prevails. They fled a war, some call it tribal or family violence, in Somalia for better opportunities. Now they’ve fled violence in the place where they sought refuge.

“If you lose, you lose,” says Ahmed.

“The targeted approach of these attacks on foreign shop owners irresistibly bears xenophobic undertones and [not] only as criminality as it has been suggested in a number of statements by some government spokespersons,” said the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) in a press release Monday. “Acknowledging [this] will enable those responsible in dealing with these challenges to do so from a correct perspective.” The SAHRC said due to the “inability” of government to implement proposals after the 2008 xenophobic attacks “it is irresistible to believe that had they done so the current attacks and lootings of businesses of non-nationals could, to a certain extent, have been minimised”.

Tea is served outside Banaardir Restaurant. “Why people come here is to get peace and a better life, better than Somalia,” says Ibrahim Salah, 25, whose Snake Park store was looted almost two weeks ago. He says the looting is unfair, but so is life. According to Salah, many refugees have asylum appeal visas and for years they have been renewing them every six months, with little help from the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR. “Somalis are very hard working people… They have the ability to do their own businesses… We don’t rob. We don’t kill. We only left our country because of war. We want to increase the economy of the country,” says Salah. “It’s very unfair that our shops are looted. We respect them. They should respect us.”

Salah wants a strong signal from the South African government – if you loot, you’ll be arrested. The problem is, he says, leniency means “then these things will rampantly increase”.

Along the street, men sit, some checking their phones, others in conversation, a few drinking tea. Everyone I speak to has fled a store somewhere. “Are you from Al Jazeera?” I’m asked. An interview with Peter Greste, now free from Egypt’s prisons, plays on the Banaardir’s TV.

“Foreign business owners are not the enemy,” said DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane on the weekend. “The real enemy is a corrupt government government that has taken the power from the people in order to make themselves rich.”

In a park on the next corner, a line stretches outside a tent of the Youth Cadet Corps. Its cadets are dressed like soldiers. One walks past with a gun; another guards the line with a dog as the refugees’ documents are checked. The Corps, which aims to teach youth discipline and address xenophobia, is working with the UNHCR to map the looting and record those affected to provide humanitarian aid.

A Somali says he doesn’t like the militia style, another sign of the ongoing violence, but supposedly fights have erupted while those in need are processed.

The words “Canada” and “Australia” are muttered along the queue. People want refugee status elsewhere. “America?” someone asks. Eager for attention, Somalians Hassan Kalif, 35, and Siraj Ali demand a picture. Kalif had two stores in Soweto. “In Somalia and South Africa, I don’t have safety,” he says. “I’m scared to go back there.” Kalif says the police didn’t help. “Even when you phone them they don’t want to come,” says a voice from the gathering crowd. Someone else claims the cops were negotiating a bribe while their store was looted.

In the park, everyone wants out and they think the media can help. Those by the Banaardir are more resigned. They can’t live in Somalia and are not accepted in South Africa. Some Somalis have been sleeping since the looting.

“There’s only one thing that can help us,” I’m told. “Not you, not the UN, not South Africa. There’s only one thing: God,” says one man walking to afternoon prayers at the mosque.

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