MUSINA, South Africa — They bear the look of street urchins, their eyes on the prowl for useful scraps of garbage and their bodies covered in clothes no cleaner than a mechanic’s rags.
Near midnight, these Zimbabwean children can be found sleeping outside almost anywhere in this border city. A 12-year-old girl named No Matter Hungwe, hunched beneath the reassuring exterior light of the post office, said it was hunger that had pushed her across the border alone.
Her father is dead, and she wanted to help her mother and younger brothers by earning what she could here in South Africa — within certain limits, anyway. “Some men — men with cars — want to sleep with me,” she said, considering the upside against the down. “They have offered me 100 rand,” about $10.
With their nation in a prolonged sequence of crises, more unaccompanied children and women than ever are joining the rush of desperate Zimbabweans illegally crossing the frontier at the Limpopo River, according to the police, local officials and aid workers.
What they are escaping is a broken country where half the people are going hungry, most schools and hospitals are closed or dysfunctional and a cholera epidemic has taken a toll in the thousands. Yet they are arriving in a place where they are unwelcome and are resented as rivals for jobs. Last year, Zimbabweans were part of the quarry in a spate of mob attacks against foreigners.
For those in the know, crossing the border can be a simple chore, a bribe paid on one side and a second bribe on the other. But for the uninitiated and the destitute, the journey is as uncertain as the undercurrents of the Limpopo and the appetites of the crocodiles.
Where is it best to enter the river? Where are the holes in the barbed fences beyond? Where do the soldiers patrol? Perhaps the greatest risk is the gumagumas — the swindlers, thieves and rapists who stalk the vulnerable as they wander in the bush.
Williad Fire, 16, who arrived here on Jan. 4, is one of nine boys who came from Murimuka, a town in a mining region of central Zimbabwe. His story is a fairly typical one of serial catastrophe. He was living with an uncle after his parents died, but then the uncle died, too, stricken in November with an illness that Williad described with a mystified shrug: “He was vomiting blood.”
The boy was hungry, and scrounging in South Africa seemed to hold more promise than scrounging at home. To get train fare south, he sold his most valuable possession, a secondhand pair of Puma sneakers two sizes too big. He and eight friends then did odd jobs in Beitbridge, on the Zimbabwean side of the border, until they had saved about $35.
From there, Williad’s story takes another dismal turn. When the boys neared the river, they were confronted by the gumagumas, who pretended to be helpful, then pounced. “They hit me in the forehead with a rock,” Williad said. “I was carrying everyone’s money, so I was the one to beat.”
But they continued across the river, and here in Musina, the boys from Murimuka slept in the streets for a while, as many other youngsters do. Then they staked claim to a patch of sandy soil under the punishing sun at the Showgrounds, an open athletic field that is the designated repository for refugees. The population hovers around 2,000. Each day new people arrive, and each day familiar faces depart.
The South African government issues temporary asylum papers to about 250 of these refugees a day, entitling them to six months without worry of deportation. Unaccompanied minors are ineligible for this status, though, leaving them in an odd limbo, with no specified place in the bureaucratic shuffle.
Williad and his friends share a single blanket. They cook spaghetti over a fire fed with twigs and cardboard. Cans and buckets fetched from the trash are used as pots. Plastic bottles sliced open along one side serve as bowls.
Honest Mapiriyawo, a 13-year-old orphan, is the boys’ best beggar. Children compete at the supermarkets to carry groceries for shoppers in exchange for tips. Honest is tiny and winsome. People are drawn to his proper diction. “May I assist you?” is the phrasing he prefers.
Another of the Murimuka boys is Diallo Butau, 15. He said his father is dead and his mother had tuberculosis. He bears the guilt of abandoning her. “If I could get some medicine, some pills, I would go back and cure her,” he said.
Georgina Matsaung runs a shelter for children at the Uniting Reformed Church. “You’ll sometimes find boys sleeping in ditches and under bridges, but you won’t find the girls,” she said with a regretful shake of her head. “The girls get quickly taken by men who turn them into women.”
The Musina area has a population of about 57,000, with an additional 15,000 foreigners, overwhelmingly Zimbabweans, at any given time, according to Abram Luruli, the municipal manager. “Many children are scattered in the street,” he admitted, though it is plain enough for anyone to see. At night, they can be found sleeping beneath sheets of plastic along the roadside, a few of them with their minds meandering from ethers inhaled from a bottle of glue.
While the stories of the refugee children are troubling — with penury in Zimbabwe being exchanged for penury here — many of the more horrifying stories in the city involve the rapes of helpless women.
Leticia Shindi, a 39-year-old widow from the village of Madamombe, said she left Zimbabwe on Jan. 4, hoping to get piecework so she could send money back to her two daughters. She had never waded across a river before, and as she eyed the muddy flow, she seized up with fear.
Two young men were preparing to lead others across, and she gratefully joined them. The guides used poles to judge the hidden depths while the rest cautiously held hands as they moved through the shoulder-deep water.
Once across, the two men robbed them all. Because Ms. Shindi had insufficient money, payment was exacted otherwise. “Take off your underpants,” she recalled one gumaguma saying. “Today I am going to be your husband.”
Chengetai Mapfuri, 29, left the outskirts of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, just after Christmas, carrying her 20-month-old son, Willington. Two knife-wielding gumagumas who raped her took turns, she said, one holding the toddler while the other held her.
Aldah Mawuka, 17, is also from the Harare suburbs. She said the first gumagumas she encountered on Jan. 7 only robbed her; it was the second ones who demanded she pull down her jeans. The rapist was very direct and impatient, she recalled: “If you don’t do it, I’ll kill you.”
South Africa’s national police force is exasperated by the crimes. Capt. Sydney Ringane, seated in his office in Musina, said the surrounding wooded terrain made it too hard to catch the gumagumas. Anyway, most victims do not file complaints. After all, they are here illegally, unless remaining in the Showgrounds. “Last week, I had 1,500 ready for deportation,” he said.
The captain stood up, walking over to a computer screen. “We keep photos of the refugees killed near the border.”
He punched the keyboard and clicked with the mouse. “This woman was raped before she was killed,” he said. “She wasn’t wearing underpants. She was identified for us by some street kids.”
Mention of the children seemed to feed his exasperation. “Street kids, more all the time,” he said. “They come in as if they are playing in a game.”
He asked, “What do we do about these kids?”