South African police and soldiers raided Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, known for sheltering displaced foreigners, during the early hours of Friday morning. Two people were arrested and 470 are currently detained by the Home Affairs Ministry in a nearby prison. Most are undocumented foreign nationals.
As dawn broke in Johannesburg, hordes of heavily armed South African police and army units arrived to raid the church. The illegal foreign nationals were carted off in armored vans. The detainees are now waiting to be "processed."
Gun-toting police entered the church shouting obscenities, calling people "kwekwerere" - a derogatory term for foreigner - according to Lizzy Mambu, who has stayed at the church since she fled Zimbabwe several years ago.
A bedroom for several people who have sought refuge is seen at the church, Johannesburg, South Africa, May 8, 2015. (Gillian Parker/VOA)
“We just hear the noise at 4 o’clock; they were barking ‘Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! Go to the ground floor.’ So we go here, we see a lot of police and soldiers with guns and Home Affairs. They said everyone must sit down on the ground floor. They said, ‘you are going back to your countries,’” said Mambu.
Police spokesman Lt. Colonel Katlego Mogale maintains that the operation was “disciplined and organized” and that nobody was injured.
Blankets left on makeshift cardboard beds signalled a hasty departure for some 2,000 people staying in the church. Those who escaped the raid later returned to pack their modest belongings into large shopping bags with little clue of where to go.
Mambu said that she and her husband had few choices.
"I left Zimbabwe because of the elections. [I was] afraid because my husband was the chairman for MDC [party]; so they want to kill people from MDC; so we leave Zimbabwe and we are staying here," said Mambu.
Johannesburg's Central Methodist Church became a sanctuary for foreign nationals following a wave of xenophobic violence in 2008. Most who stayed here are illegal immigrants from other parts of Africa as well as South Africans with nowhere else to go.
Conditions in the church are unsanitary. Bottles filled with urine line the stairwell with empty food packets and burger boxes strewn across the floor.
The possessions of the displaced foreigners are put in a bin if they go unclaimed, Johannesburg, South Africa, May 8, 2015. (Gillian Parker/VOA)
The raids are part of the nationwide “Operation Fiela,” or “sweep out dirt.” It is described as an anti-crime campaign but rights groups said the operation is institutionalizing anti-foreigner sentiment.
A surge of xenophobic attacks last month left at least eight people dead and forced thousands of foreigners to desert their homes and businesses.
Some might be eligible for asylum, but rights groups say that there is incompetence and corruption in Home Affairs, making it difficult for many migrants to get documents.
Notices pinned on church walls the day before Friday's raid stated that following a theft in the building, the church had “no choice” but to evict everyone from the building. Those who were staying at the church argue that church members wanted them out at any cost.
Bishop Ndumiso Ncombo said this was not the case.
"The church has no problem with housing people that are genuine and who are really desperate for help but while you do that – there are people who are going to hide behind that…. the church was not happy, particularly about the element of crime.,” said Bishop Ncombo.
Paul Verryn, former bishop to the church, described the raid as “beyond despicable.”
“I know there are some difficult characters, and some criminals. I'm saying ‘deal with them but you should be very careful that you don't treat everybody as if that's what they are.’”
For hundreds of people who sought refuge in the church – once renowned for its charity – it is too late. Many are likely to be sent back to their countries regardless of what they might face on their return.