“Zomwe ndinaona ndimalila mpakapano [When I think of what I went through I cry up until today]. Imagine – we stayed two days without eating. We were only given water at 12pm the next day. Honestly, I nearly saw death.
“I will never forget this experience. I still think about those people we left behind. There were skulls of dead people there.”
In these words Foster Chiwawa told amaBhungane of his ordeal at the hands of criminals who abducted him and more than 40 other Malawians at the South African border, force-marched them to a temporary camp in the bush where they were held hostage, and extorted money from them.
Victims of the scam told amaBhungane they were threatened with death if they or their South African-based relatives failed to pay up.
Malawian-based “agents”, who book victims on coaches and travel with them, are seen as part of the syndicate. They offer seductively discounted fares, and remain in constant radio contact with unknown people about the coach’s location.
"My fellow Malawians, these guys who are calling themselves agents in Blantyre will not get you safe in South Africa. They are in contact with some Zimbabweans and South Africans who will hold you hostage at some bush in exchange of money," wrote Chiwawa in a Facebook posting on November 4 last year, intended to warn others of the dangers..
In a posting on the Facebook page of the Malawi Consulate-General in South Africa in January this year he added: "Many Malawians are being forced to use the bush upon arrival at Beit Bridge border. I went through such a traumatic experience. We were about 44 people from Malawi. We left some people there because their relatives did not send money to these guys who held us hostage.”
AmaBhungane was told a similar story by a Malawian woman based in South Africa, who said that she paid R5000 to secure the release of her abducted brother and his family. Fearing possible reprisals by the criminals, she asked to remain anonymous.
Blantyre police spokesperson Elizabeth Divala confirmed that the police have received such reports from “people who have been duped by these agents”.
Divala said in some instances police have summoned the concerned parties and “some issues have been resolved [by] agents refunding money, while in some cases the police fail to get hold of the culprits”.
"We have been receiving many cases. They happen because people want to use the cheapest means of transport. Our appeal is that they should be going to reliable offices and not anyone they meet at the depot," Divala said.
In an interview with amaBhungane, Chiwawa, from the Blantyre suburb of Ndirande, said he paid 79 000 Malawi kwacha (R1580) to an agent at the warehouse close to the city’s Wenela coach station for a return trip to Durban, where he planned to visit his sister.
An agent told him he needed about MK80 000 thousand (R1650) for transport costs and about K150 000 thousand (R3000) to show South African border officials that he had the means to support himself during his visit.
“[The agents] have to make sure the number of people is worth booking a bus. On October 21 2016, we got the communication that we will depart the next day at 6am,” he said.
Chiwawa said he had no doubt he would arrive in South Africa safely, as he had all the necessary travel documents and was not trying to enter illegally.
"I did not think anything would happen because a lot of us had our passports … Those who did not have passports failed to pass through Mwanza border [in southern Malawi] and the agents promised to give them back their money when they return,” he explained.
Chiwawa said that throughout the trip the agents could be heard giving updates to unknown people about the coach’s whereabouts.
“The bus was moving fast but surprisingly, when we were approaching the … border it reduced its speed. We arrived at Zimbabwe Beit Bridge border at 7pm and there we were told to get into two Quantum buses which were parked there. One of the agents said we would meet at Musina," he said.
Instead of passing through the border post, however, the two buses turned off the main road and drove about 12km into the bush. They stopped and the passengers were told to start walking after a group of six men.
“With our luggage we started following them, crossed Limpopo River and we walked the whole night till dawn. Then we got at some place where we were bluntly told both buses that we took from Malawi and the two Quantum buses had gone back and that we should provide (an) extra R1500 to get to Johannesburg," he said.
According to Chiwawa, some people could not raise the money as the relatives that they called for help did not believe their accounts.
On day two, those whose relations were reluctant to send them money were told to stand in a separate group. Pointing to human skulls, abandoned luggage and shoes lying on the ground, one of the abductors said: “See your friends here? They also said they couldn’t pay!”
“My sister sent R1500 to these people. At 11pm that night about 34 of us left that place leaving behind those whose relatives had not sent money for their release.
Chiwawa said he had no idea what happened to the passengers who were left behind. “Imagine leaving someone I was sharing a seat with throughout the journey and experienced the problems together,” he said. “I was hurt, but I had no choice," he said.
Chiwawa said those who paid were herded onto bus that drove to Johannesburg. After sleeping in a warehouse overnight they were dropped in the middle of the city the next day.
AmaBhungane also spoke to a Malawian woman based in Midrand, who told a similar story. The woman said her brother had phoned her out of the blue to ask her to rescue him, his wife and his child, who had been kidnapped en route to South Africa and held in the bush.
“I had invited my brother and his family to come and visit me in South Africa but I got worried when I did not hear from them on the day I was expecting them to arrive.
“A day later I received a call from my brother saying his family and others from Malawi had been held hostage and the people were demanding R5000."
The woman said she was given details of a bank account where she was told to deposit the money. However, when she tried do this, the bank teller advised her not to go through with the transaction because the account was under investigation.
"The teller advised me to see one of the senior bank managers. I explained why I wanted to deposit money into that account. He told me not to do so, as every time money goes into that account it is immediately withdrawn," she said.
The woman said that night she received a call from the kidnappers, who said that “as I did not deposit the money I should meet them in person if I want my brother and his family to stay alive“.
She was told to meet them at a certain branch of Shoprite Checkers in Johannesburg, which she refused to identify. "When I got there they called to say they had seen me, and I saw a van coming in my direction. I gave them the money and they released my family members," she said.
Investigations in Malawi revealed that the agents accused of colluding with the kidnappers operate from a warehouse close to the Blantyre's bus depot.
They specialise in collecting money from people who express an interest in travelling to South Africa by bus and promise to stay with them until they reach their destination.
Posing as a client, a reporter visited the warehouse and was approached by a number of individuals who asked if he wanted to travel to Johannesburg.
The reporter was then directed to an office building called “Herbal Clinic” where he was told to wait for the bus driver, named Harry.
“If you want to go to Johannesburg you have come to the right people,” Harry told the journalist.
“We leave on Wednesday and Saturday and the bus fare is MK28 000 (about R600).
“You are required to have R3000 (about MK150 000) to show at the border. If you don't have it make sure you have R800, which one of our agents will use to help you pass through,” Harry said.
Two women who introduced themselves as Florence and Ndemeka and said they worked for “Siko Coaches” also offered to arrange the trip to South Africa.
AmaBhungane could find no record of a bus operation called Siko Coaches in Malawi.
The women said that the figures quoted by Harry were understated “because fuel prices are high to get to Johannesburg. We charge K33 000 (about R700).”
They added, significantly, that “we cannot promise when you will arrive in Johannesburg because it all depends on what happens at Beit Bridge”.
Malawi’s Consul General in South Africa, Fraser Nkhoma, confirmed that he had heard stories of Malawian travellers being kidnapped and falling prey extortionists, but added that his office had not received a formal complaint.
"Certain people have found it as a business to take Malawians through those routes and steal from them. Some of these people who go through these experiences are trying to get into South Africa illegally, while some have legitimate travel documents.
“Civic education is key in this issue. Once people know what is required for them to travel we will have less of these stories," he said.
Nkhoma said his office is trying to reach out to all Malawians on the right procedures to follow in travelling to South Africa.
*Additional reporting by Steve Chauluka of Malawi’s Times Group.
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