December 19th, 2008
09:40 AM ET

Zimbabwe's troubled youth

CNN's Robyn Curnow meets Zimbabwean refugee children who tattoo themselves with a swastika as a show of toughness.

Editor's Note: For more on these Zimbabwean refugee children, read Robyn Curnow's report.


Roughly etched onto the upper part of Brian's arm is a swastika tattoo.

The 11-year-old says his 10-year-old friend Temashi spent two days "scratching" the image onto his skin with a match stick. It only hurt a little bit, says Brian, one of thousands of Zimbabwean children who have fled their ravaged homeland for what they hope will be a better life in South Africa.

For Brian and his friend, the symbol of the swastika does not represent the horrors of Hitler and the Holocaust.

Instead, they say the ominous jagged lines on their arms mean "Germans never surrender."

It is a twisted interpretation that, however misguided, gives strength to Brian, marking him as a "man" and "someone who does not surrender," he says quietly in a child-like voice.

Brian and his young compatriots from Zimbabwe are on their own in a new country. Charities such as Save the Children and UNICEF classify them as "unaccompanied minors," but those words do not begin to describe their situation.

They endure unimaginable hardships traveling to South Africa by themselves or with small groups of friends. They hitch rides on trucks, trains and taxis.

They told CNN that when they got to the South African border at Beitbridge, authorities just let them walk through without passports or other documents.

They then made their way to the border town of Musina where the boys beg on the streets or work on the farms, and the girls seem to disappear into South African society. UNICEF representative Shantha Bloemen said many young Zimbabwean girls either turn to prostitution or work as domestic servants.

Nearly all of the children - some younger than 10 - leave Zimbabwe because they hope their life will be better in South Africa. They cite hunger, non-functioning schools and poverty as their reasons for leaving.

Many are orphans while some have parents, but they all dislike Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's regime - a government that has left them with no choice but to abandon their childhoods back home and join the exodus south.

Already a quarter of the Zimbabwean population has fled the country, mostly to neighboring South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique, humanitarian groups say.

The United Nations and Save the Children, which has an office based in the border town of Musina, report there has been a worrying increase in the number of children under 18 who are making the risky journey south from their homes in Zimbabwe to South Africa to look for work and food.

Social workers from Save the Children and UNICEF told CNN that in June, 175 Zimbabwean children came over the border illegally and alone. In November, 1,016 kids made the same perilous journey.

The boys older than 16 hang around the border town of Musina, sleeping on the sidewalk by a local sports stadium along with older homeless men. Their days are spent waiting in line, jostling alongside hundreds of Zimbabwean adults, trying to apply for political asylum at a makeshift asylum center opened by South African authorities.

A South African official who processes the asylum applications says it is common for youngsters to lie about their age so they can get the papers to stay in South Africa legally.

Many, though, cannot get the necessary papers because they do not carry documentation or have adults to vouch for who they are and where they come from.

So they wander the streets, begging for money. The younger ones like Brian are picked up by police and housed in a safe place until authorities and aid agencies can figure out what to do with them.

While they wait for a future that never seems to arrive, lost boys like Brian and Temashi - the real legacy of Mugabe's regime - brand themselves with the icon of another tyrant, from another regime, in a different time, little understanding the symbol on their skin or the world they now find themselves in.

Filed under: Global 360° • United Nations • Zimbabwe
soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Joanne, Solvay, NY

    Some 50 years later, the symbol of prejudice and unfathomable horror is now a badge of honor in Africa? The situation is dire...and sad.

    December 19, 2008 at 10:42 am |
  2. Cherisa

    Something is terribly wrong when children take it upon themselves to seek a better life. I hope and pray the leaders of Africa finally see fit to do the right thing instead of what is politically correct. Too many lives are at stake.

    December 19, 2008 at 10:22 am |