JOHANNESBURG - Thousands of people marched through the South African city of Durban on Thursday to protest recent anti-immigrant violence that has left five people dead and thousands displaced.
Around 4,000 people marched through Durban, chanting "down with xenophobia" and "a United Africa" at an event attended by residents, students and local religious and political leaders.
In a suburb of Johannesburg, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas on Thursday to disperse a crowd of anti-immigrant protesters aiming to attack foreign-owned shops.
The violence first targeted shops owned by foreign nationals, largely from Somalia and Ethiopia. Now it's spreading against all African foreigners, leaving many feeling terrified and hopeless.
Somalia national Ebrahim Mohamad Ali runs a coffee shop in Johannesburg. Memories of the 2008 xenophobic attacks in South Africa are still fresh in his mind. He lost his auto repair business – and his brother.
"They killed him in that robbery, for xenophobia. Me, I lost all my tools, all my money," Mohamad said.
The anti-immigrant violence erupted again in recent weeks. Somali and Ethiopian nationals owning grocery shops in Soweto township were the first to be targeted. They were beaten and chased away by locals who took over their businesses.
Foreign shop owners in the port city of Durban were the next to be targeted, two weeks ago, and now all African foreign nationals are being told to pack up and leave. Thousands have been displaced and are living in makeshift camps.View full gallery
?Foreign nationals frightened
Ethiopian national Sarah Kidane is still traumatized after being violently forced out of her shop in Soweto.
"I’m not feeling OK," said a tearful Kidane. "I was losing too much. I was losing my life.... I don’t have any choice now. Go back there? The people are not good; they will start again" with the violence.
Other victims say South African police are turning a blind eye to their fate.
"I did go to report for the police but no one helped me that time. I was in the police station, even -- no police even that time. I don’t know what was happening. I didn’t receive anything,” said Gitaw Aniyo, 32.
Many others, like 25-year-old John Alemu, say they are puzzled by the attacks.
"We are African brothers, but they give us problems here. They kill our brothers and they rob our own shops," Alemu said.
On Thursday, South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma, denounced the anti-immigrant attacks and called for an end to the violence, Reuters news agency reported.
South African authorities have denied the country is experiencing xenophobic attacks, preferring to call them "criminal acts."
Abdirikaz Ali Osman, national secretary of the Somali Community Board of South Africa, disagrees.
"To me it’s pure xenophobic attacks, which have been targeted [against] the foreign nationals who are living in the country – especially those who are having small, informal business in the townships and the informal settlements," Osman said. "So it’s obvious that it’s xenophobic and Afrophobic violence, actually."
Osman is pleading with authorities to swiftly intervene before these foreign nationals, who have already lost their livelihood, lose their lives as well.
Although the attacks are intensifying each day, the foreign nationals, especially those from Somali and Ethiopia, say they would rather die in South Africa than return to their countries of origin, where they are likely to be met with even more violence.