Student teachers under siege: Robbers make railway bridge to UCE a no-go area
Raymond Jaravaza, Saturday Chronicle Correspondent
THE screams of students under attack from robbers at a bridge less than 50 metres from his work station at the United College of Education (UCE) tear his heart apart yet there is nothing he can do to stop the crimes.
He can only pray that the victims lose only their valuables but are not injured or killed by the robbers.
This is the story of a security guard at UCE — a teacher training college on the periphery of Bulawayo city centre along what is commonly called the “Old Victoria Falls Road”. The guard has witnessed a string of robberies just a stone’s throw away from his workplace.
The UCE main gate can be accessed from different directions but the main route to the college is the one that passes through a rail level crossing bridge. Transport to UCE is abundant via commuter omnibuses that drop off the students at the main gate from the Bulawayo City Centre but for those that reside in nearby neighbourhoods such as Mzilikazi, Makokoba, Nguboyenja, Entumbane or a little further in Emakhandeni, walk to the college.
But danger awaits them.
The students who walk to the college have become easy targets for robbers. So vicious and daring are the robbers that they strike even during the day and as such muggings are now the order of the day.
The UCE security guard who spoke to Saturday Chronicle on condition of anonymity said its worrying that students are now at the mercy of robbers that pounce just metres away from his workstation.
He however, said there is nothing that he can do when he hears the heart-wrenching screams because his duty is to man the UCE main gate. “Attending to these robberies is not only risky but could be considered a dereliction of duty by my employers,” he said.
The guard said the robbers were aware that students will be carrying a lot of valuables as well as cash.
“Every student has a laptop and phone, it’s a fact that the robbers are aware of and so those are the gadgets that they target.
That bridge (pointing at the crime-prone area) is where most of the students are attacked and what pains me most is that there is nothing I can do to stop the attacks. The students can only walk in groups to deter the robbers from attacking them. Early morning and a little bit later in the day are the times that the robbers attack,” he said.
The Saturday Chronicle news crew spent some time at the bridge to have a feel of the “crime scene” that is tormenting future teachers. On each side of the bridge are dusty intertwining trails that lead to the NZR rail tracks. Tall grass provides cover for robbers who then waylay their victims.
We spoke to a first-year student who explained how his friend lost a bag containing a laptop, a phone and books just minutes after attending a mass lecture on the fateful day.
“They grabbed him from behind, punched him several times in the face and snatched his bag. They ran from the bridge down the path that leads to the NRZ tracks and disappeared into the bush, heading into that squatter camp. Those are the guys that are robbing us,” said Talent Musekiwa.
A large swath of land divides UCE and a small squatter camp that sits between the teacher training college and Entumbane suburb. Students usually walk along the NRZ rail tracks, follow dusty tracks that lead to Entumbane, Emakhandeni suburbs and pass though the squatter camp.
Deep in the thicket, next to NRZ rail tracks, lies a three-roomed house surrounded by makeshift shacks and the Saturday Chronicle is greeted by an elderly gentleman who introduced himself as “Bohligers”. We later learnt that his name was Bholami Mathe, who described himself as the chief of the squatter camp.
He swore on his late mother’s grave that the squatters are not the perpetrators of the crimes that UCE students endure on a weekly basis.
“Every time those children (UCE students) are robbed, we are the suspects because the robbers always run into the bushes close to our houses”.
“Police have been here several times looking for suspects and each time they come we have challenged them to bring the victims so that they could identify the robbers. Not a single person from this place has been arrested accused of robbing these students,” said Mathe.
He said the students pass through their place everyday and no case of robbery has been reported.
“Living in a squatter camp doesn’t make us thieves, we are just normal people making an honest life from selling scrap metal and other such activities to fend for our families,” said Mathe.
Two other gentlemen are doing laundry nearby and they tell our photographer Nkosizile Ndlovu that he is free to take pictures of them to prove to the world that they fear nothing because they are not the ones robbing UCE students.
UCE principal, Dr Adam Luthuli said he was out of town in Hwange on college business and would comment when he gets back to the office.
Police regularly patrol the area in a bid to stop the robberies.
“We are aware of the robberies that takes place at that bridge and our officers conduct patrols in that area during the day and at night. We also urge members of the public to walk in groups in areas that they suspect to have criminals,” said provincial police spokesman Inspector Abednico Ncube.
In 2021 a headmaster — Vusumuzi Nkiwane of David Livingstone High School in Ntabazinduna was stabbed and robbed of a school truck and cash near UCE.
The two robbers, who were armed with an axe and a knife, stabbed Nkiwane on the thigh when he resisted their demands to hand over cash and the car keys. Nkiwane was forced to hand over US$455 and R4 000 in cash before the robbers drove away in the US$50 000 grey Ford Ranger owned by the Presbyterian-run school.–@RaymondJaravaza