The River of Death
How hundreds are dying in the waters of the Limpopo
The English writer Kipling called it the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River. It flows across Southern Africa, and forms the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa. And for many sad and desperate Zimbabwean refugees it has provided a bitter watery grave.
Last week I visited Beitbridge, the border post. I had heard that three people, trying to cross illegally into the sanctuary of the Republic, had drowned in the Limpopo. I was shocked to learn that this was not only unusual, but, as the local police saw it, almost routine.
A Police Superintendent on the South African side of the river told me that his department was recording 20 such tragedies reported to them a month - but he believed the true number to be much higher.
"The chief cause appears to be accidental drowning while trying to swim across," he told me. "Even crossing by vehicle is fraught with danger. Earlier this year we discovered 18 bodies who had been passengers on a truck that was swept away.
"We get such cases reported to us by local people who see it happen. But of course they don't see every incident. Those who lose friends or family as they all attempt to get across together don't report the deaths to us, for fear of being arrested. They just press on, desperate to get away from life in Zimbabwe.
He told me that drowning is not the only cause of death in the the Limpopo.. Crocodiles are another menace, rising out of the dark waters to grab the unwary. Then there are the human crocodiles that have to be faced - by which I mean those gangs who now specialise in "helping" refugees to cross the border.
"These criminal traffickers in humankind take large sums on the promise of seeing people safe into South Africa," said the superintendent. "But sadly they often rob, rape and beat them, and then throw them back into the river, where either the crocs get them or they drown and we find them washed up on the bank."
Horrified by these stories, I checked with an official of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum in Johannesburg.
He said: "The current death rate at the Limpopo is, according to the figures we receive, around 30 people a month. We estimate that more than 200 people have died while attempting the crossing so far this year."
And now the rains have arrived. Both the power and the depth of the river is increasing by the day. The Limpopo will surely continue to devour its share of the poor and desperate Zimbabwean people.