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Terror at the Zimbabwe-South Africa border

MUSINA, South Africa – I saw terror in the eyes of the four men from Zimbabwe, although we were separated by three coiled rows of vicious razor-wire.

When they saw me they ran away, away from freedom in South Africa and back to oppressive, diseased, starving Zimbabwe. They thought Paul Goldman, my producer, and I were South African policemen who would jail them.

VIDEO: Life or death decision on the Zimbabwe-South Africa border

We had been driving along the border road between these two countries, hoping to spot refugees fleeing Zimbabwe. Sure enough, after only a few minutes we saw four men crouching in the bushes, just inside South Africa.

They had already snuck under the razor-wire, after a trek though the bush that normally takes several days, with no food or water. But when we stopped our vehicle and stepped out, cameras in hand, they panicked and desperately raced back to the country they had just fled, squeezing back under the wire. In his haste, one man abandoned his small, brown backpack.

I picked it up and waved after them and called out, "It's OK, we're just journalists, here's your bag, you can come back, we don't want to harm you."           

We knew that was true, but they didn't. What else would a policeman say other than, "It's OK, come back?" So they stood around uncertainly on the Zimbabwe side of the fence.

One man nervously waved his arms at his side in a gesture of trepidation and helplessness. The others hid in the trees and bush, but we could make them out. It was easy to spot the man in a bright red shirt among the green and brown trees.           

I called out again, "Don't be afraid. This is your chance, come through now before it is too late. We're just journalists."

They called out "Thank you," but stayed put.

Back to starvation or risk it all
They whispered among each other, uncertain. Behind them was the Zimbabwe army, patrolling their side of the border, looking for refugees just like them. If they were found, they would get arrested, jailed, maybe beaten, maybe even killed in Zimbabwe. The best they could hope for was hunger and starvation. U.N. officials warn that by March, half of Zimbabwe's population may not have enough to eat.

VIDEO: Cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe

Back in Zimbabwe, they would be exposed to cholera again, which is breaking out in epidemic proportions because sewage pipes are broken and bacteria has reached the drinking water, which often comes out green and smelly. The government has no money or means to fix it. Children play on dirt tracks slick with sewage. They admit to 600 dead from cholera, but the real number, aid agencies say, is more likely in the thousands. And as the rainy season begins this month, the flowing water will spread the disease more. UNICEF is making preparations for 60,000 sick. And neighboring South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana and Zambia fear the disease will hit them too.

So we waited – a standoff. The four men faced a grim choice. Hide in the bushes from us, and risk capture or worse; or trust us, and maybe get captured by the South African police, jailed, and deported back to Zimbabwe.

I called encouragement, and they answered with "Thank You," but they didn't move. As they wrestled with their dilemma, the solution for us was obvious. We had to abandon our hopes of seeing refugees flee Zimbabwe, and leave, allowing the men their stab at freedom. I said to Paul, "What's more important, their freedom or our story?"

VIDEO: Zimbabwean refugees flood border town

'Here, catch'
Before we left, we returned to the car to collect some supplies. At the fence, I laid the man's back-pack on a stone where they could see it, and I began to toss bottles of water across the fence. "Here, catch," I shouted, and lobbed the first bottle in a high arc, giving them time to spot it as it fell from the sky. "Good catch," I shouted, "OK! Here's another one." I threw one bottle for each man, and then called out, "And here are some apples and some fruit juice," and I laid them on the back-pack. "Good luck, guys," I shouted, "Good luck!"           

They clapped their hands and smiled and called back, "Thank you, thank you sir. God bless you."

Paul and I turned our backs to them, to the razor-wire fence, to the story, and walked back to our vehicle, and drove away. We didn't stop to film them from afar, or to even see if they crossed. We didn't want them to think it was a trick, we did not want them to be caught, on their side of the border or on ours. We just left them to their fate, hoping it would be a better one.  

An hour later we returned, driving back from our bed and breakfast. We stopped and walked to the boulder where we had left the back-pack, apples and juice and sure enough, it was all gone. We smiled at each other and walked away.