HARARE, ZIMBABWE — When Robert Mugabe's "green bombers" walk the streets, they know that everyone else is afraid of them. But what everyone else doesn't realize is that the green bombers are frightened of them too.
The youth militias are so notorious here that they can seem like cartoon bad guys -- one-dimensional and evil. But the ordinary face of evil is much more human, and more menacing.
Two of the young men, who had spent months beating, looting, raping and killing people in their neighborhood near Harare, sat recently with anxious eyes and furrowed brows. They looked so non-threatening that it was difficult to picture them beating up a 12-year-old just for wearing red, or helping to burn a house where people died in the flames in the months before the June 27 presidential runoff. They behaved like guilty boys, defensive about their "chores."
"I did not feel like fighting my brother," said one of the men, a 25-year-old who spoke on condition of anonymity, refusing to be identified even by a first name. "We were forced to do these chores."
The level of violence "just depended on your mood that day, or that hour," he said.
The interview was conducted in a moving car because the two men were afraid of violent reprisals for talking to a Western journalist. As the car passed along drab suburban streets where children played and women walked to the market, the men's soft, sheepish murmurs produced a disconcerting tug of sympathy.
Like his victims, the 25-year-old lives with fear. He believes the spirits of those he killed will come and take vengeance. He is afraid to walk alone in his neighborhood, because an angry mob might rise up and kill him for what he has done in Mugabe's name.
And he's afraid of his superiors.
"If you don't do it, they can just tell you, 'You are a spy;' they can start beating you, or kill you."
He's remorseful, up to a point; but mostly he blames his commanders. He was only "following orders."
"When we first got to the base we were told the rules and orders, which you can't resist," he said. "If the commander tells you what to do, you have to do what he says."
The youth militias were the storm troopers in the regime's military-style campaign to kill and disperse the opposition, and to force people to vote for Mugabe in the runoff. Hundreds of bases were set up before the balloting, but most of them have closed down.
The opposition says the violence continues, but at a lower level, and the fear remains.
Mugabe is under intense international pressure to stop the violence, with talks underway in South Africa aimed at a political resolution. But if the international focus on the political situation wanes and Mugabe wants to punish or destroy the opposition, violence could flare again.
For weeks after the runoff, the 25-year-old was afraid to break away from the militia base where he spent most of his time, fearing that he would be attacked. But he recently summoned the nerve and fled.
He looked neat and well dressed, with a spotless T-shirt and a baseball cap. He seemed thoughtful, but deeply troubled. He spoke quietly and hesitantly, especially when admitting his most serious crimes, such as raping and killing.
"We were beating people and leaving them for dead," he said.
His friend Martin, 28, a member of the same militia, was dressed to look cool in his oversized baseball cap, sweat shirt and jeans. He also wore a big cross around his neck.
Martin, too, recently summoned the courage to leave the camp, but is terrified that he'll face revenge.
"I'm feeling a little insecure because I now suspect that I can be attacked by some of the ones we are attacking," he said.
His face was boyish, his eyes jumping nervously. Occasionally, at a difficult question, he giggled awkwardly. He let his friend do most of the talking, sometimes adding a few words, explaining how the militias would beat anyone in the streets who wore red, even young girls. The reason: It might symbolize a red card for Mugabe (a sports term for sending a player off the field). He described beating an old man and breaking his limbs.
The two went through a youth training camp, run by the ruling ZANU-PF political party, for three months in 2002. That's where they got their green bombers nickname: The trainees wear green berets.
Most people enter the camps hoping for jobs and opportunities, several said. What they get is political brainwashing in support of "unity" and a one-party state, and against the West and opposition "sell-outs."
The two said they were raised to believe that ZANU-PF was best for Zimbabwe.
"At first, we believed in ZANU-PF because we thought maybe it's good for the country, but we realized that we end up fighting our brothers and sisters," Martin said at the beginning of the interview. Later, the two expressed more disillusionment over the fact that they never got paid.
When he started attending ZANU-PF meetings in 2002, Martin began to live with fear.