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Mugabe's enforcers are also victims

Young Zimbabweans say they obey orders to beat others to avoid harm themselves.

June 27, 2008|From a Times Staff Writer

HARARE, ZIMBABWE — The first time Andrew was forced to beat an opposition party supporter, he wanted to weep in sympathy. But it would have been suicidal to show pity on his victim in front of the ruling party youth militia leaders forcing him to commit the violence.

"You feel like you want to cry, but you don't expose your tears," he said. "I feel pity beating someone, but there's nothing I can do."

For Andrew and thousands of other young men in Zimbabwe, life has come down to a painfully simple equation: If you don't beat your victim hard enough, you may be the next victim.

On the eve of Zimbabwe's discredited presidential runoff today, The Times spoke to three people who said they were forced to be part of an intimidation force that has killed, beaten and threatened opponents of incumbent President Robert Mugabe.

Reports from independent human rights organizations support the accounts by the three, who said they had been forced into ruling party militia bases.

In door-to-door searches in recent weeks, youths acting on behalf of Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party have randomly rounded up thousands of men to join them in operating about 900 "reeducation" bases across the country, designed to intimidate voters into supporting Mugabe.

Andrew said militia members spent their nights drinking beer, smoking marijuana, singing ZANU-PF liberation war songs, beating drums, patrolling the neighborhood and beating supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, sometimes with deadly results.

The forced "volunteers" are divided into groups of 15 or 20 and given iron bars to beat people, Andrew said. The militia members who lead the attacks carry axes, machetes, knives, and bows and arrows.

"Two times, my group beat someone to death," Andrew said. "I am sure those people died, because their relatives came to collect the deceased for burial. They're MDC people. They're the ones being targeted."

Andrew's surname and age and the location of his base are being withheld because of the risk that he could be killed if identified.

"We beat them hard, even killing them," said Andrew, in his 20s, who has been forced to go to a base with about 200 other men every night since June 1. "I have seen six people die."

His hands are rough, but his face is youthful and unlined. His calm expression belies his internal struggle. Sometimes he feels he's going mad.

The compulsory shifts at the base are from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Andrew said he felt a silent desperation to flee. Yet if he did, he said, his family would be beaten or killed.

Besides, the national network of militia bases is too extensive to escape. He would be captured and beaten by militia youths from a base no matter where he ran.

"We've got nowhere to go," he said.

He stared wistfully into the distance, speaking softly. "I wish I could find somewhere to stay, somewhere to go, because I feel like I could go mad somehow. I wish someone would come and help us."

Since Mugabe finished second and ZANU-PF lost its parliamentary majority in the March 29 national elections, top military and security chiefs have taken over the party's presidential runoff campaign, running it as if it were a war.

Ruling party officials allege that Britain is poised to recolonize Zimbabwe and that the Americans are ready to invade. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who pulled out of the runoff this week because of the political violence, is described as a Western puppet.

Andrew and others in the reeducation bases target those previously seen wearing MDC T-shirts and those who celebrated in bars when the MDC outperformed ZANU-PF in the March vote. According to Andrew, several dozen females ages 15 to 25 have been kidnapped to serve as sex slaves for the ZANU-PF youth militias, war veterans and soldiers at the base.

"They are being raped," he said.

Another forced volunteer, Tendai, also in his 20s, said, "If a girl doesn't go to the base, her parents will be victimized."

For Tobaiwa, 33, another man forced to stay at a base near Harare, it has been weeks since he has taken a bath or relaxed.

His sole aim in life is to avoid being beaten or killed. His sweater is dusty. He looks and sounds exhausted.

For the last two weeks, he has spent every night at the base, going to work during the day.

"I sleep at the base, except there's no sleep," he said. "If you are found sleeping, they pour water on you and then they beat you up. . . .

"We will be singing, dancing, going around the neighborhood. If you meet someone you don't know, you take that person to the base."

The youth militias at the base would demand that the captive recite ZANU-PF slogans. If he makes a mistake, he is beaten, said Tobaiwa, who denied taking part in the beatings.

Tobaiwa said he was beaten with a thick wooden stick last weekend for failing to attend a political reeducation meeting because he was at work.

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