MUSINA, December 28 – In the blazing midday sun, Fungai Lindlela watches as her baby pushes a sticky ball of maize meal into her mouth in a makeshift refugee camp near South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe.,
"I need asylum – it’s too hard," Lindlela told AFP about how hunger forced her to flee across the border with her 14-month-old daughter Tandiwa strapped to her back.
Waiting in listless resignation, Lindlela is surrounded by a sea of people seated on thin pieces of cardboard which have become a precious commodity in Musina as a buffer with the dirt ground.
All here have the same goal: applying for political asylum at the mobile refugee office set up by the South African government in July to cope with the thousands of Zimbabweans pouring into the border town.
The unofficial camp sprung up at the doorstep of the office, with clothes stretched over barbed wire fences and scant belongings mark where people will bed down in the open.
By evening, long rows of smoky fires line the street where food is cooked in blackened coffee tins by those who can afford it. But the biggest activity is waiting.
Since July, the office has handled nearly 28,000 applications, mostly from Zimbabweans, a South African official told AFP on condition of anonymity, giving the figures up to December 10.
"You can no longer call this a political crisis, it’s far much more. It has become a humanitarian crisis," he said, pointing to the scores of people waiting outside the office.
In the asylum queue was a woman who was forced to leave her seven-year-old son behind when she left her home for the border and paid smugglers 50 rand (5.1 dollars, 3.6 euros) to get into South Africa.
"I couldn’t take him with me — at least I could carry this one with me," said the 32-year-old woman who asked her name not be used, pointing to her one-year-old daughter Mercy crawling about the floor. "It took me almost six months to make up my mind."
The final triggers were starvation, political harassment from the Robert Mugabe regime, and Zimbabwe’s mind-boggling inflation which has made it impossible to withdraw enough money to buy a loaf of bread.
The long asylum queues move to an empty livestock handling area which people enter in batches, moving slowly through the narrow corrals to be handed a polystyrene container of hot stew and thick maize meal porridge.
For many, it is the only meal of the day, donated by a local church and international aid groups who assist with basic needs like organising sanitary towels for the women.
After eating, the asylum seekers sleep in the dirt field or on the street. Blessing and Garikai Ngumdu and their two-year-old daughter Shalom — named in the hope of peace in their country — sleep metres (yards) from the gate to the refugee office.
"It’s surviving, not living," Blessing said about life in Zimbabwe.
A crackdown by Mugabe’s security forces and supporters was cited by many Zimbabweans in Musina as reasons for leaving the country.
Soldiers were acting as if "there was a war," beating people on the streets, Kenneth Sibanda from Chinhoyi near Harare said.
"I don’t have hope for my country," said the 23-year-old. "At first people had hope, they thought maybe things were going to change but now the situation is getting worse."
"In Zimbabwe, if you survive for one day, you thank God because you don’t have hope for tomorrow."
Zimbabwe has the world’s highest inflation rate, last put in July at 231 million percent, and faces chronic food shortages that have left nearly half the population in need of aid.
A recent cholera outbreak has also claimed about 1,200 lives.
"Mr Mugabe and his thugs, the youth of ZANU-PF, they just destroy everything everywhere," said Challenge Ncube, who left Gokwe fearing for his life, after he was targeted as an opposition supporter.
"Today’s sleeping in cardboard boxes is better than living with Mugabe in Zimbabwe because in Zimbabwe you can’t live freely," said the 20-year-old.