- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 7, 2002

JOHANNESBURG President Robert Mugabe calls them loyal war veterans, patriotic Zimbabweans who have risen up spontaneously to fight those who would betray the revolution that brought independence.
Most other Zimbabweans see them as violent foot soldiers in a state-sponsored war to crush Mr. Mugabe's political opponents before this weekend's presidential election.
Often escorted by a protective phalanx of police, militants have firebombed opposition party offices and white-owned farms. They have attacked homes and businesses. They are said to have killed, kidnapped, tortured or simply beaten those seen as Mr. Mugabe's opponents.
Few militants have been arrested. Fewer still have been prosecuted. And some have been rewarded handsomely by an increasingly unpopular and autocratic president who is facing his severest political test against the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in the March 9-10 election.
"They are doing exactly what [Mr. Mugabe] wants. Every day of violence is more votes lost for the MDC," said Shari Eppel, an official with the Amani Trust, a Zimbabwean human-rights group.
In fiery speeches, the president has encouraged and defended his shock troops. After parliamentary elections in 2000, he granted blanket amnesty to those who waged a violent intimidation campaign against opposition groups.
"This is a betrayal of what we fought for," said Wilfred Mhanda, a former officer in the high command of the liberation army that ended white rule in 1980.
"We fought most importantly for freedom and social justice, and there is no political freedom right now," said Mr. Mhanda, director of the Zimbabwe Liberation Platform, a group of war veterans that lobbies for fair governance and human rights.
Joseph Chinotimba, who describes himself as a field commander of the pro-Mugabe militants, denied in a telephone interview that the militants have done anything wrong.
"We are totally peaceful," said Mr. Chinotimba, who accused the MDC and its presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, of being behind the political violence sweeping the country.
However, Mr. Chinotimba himself has led violent raids on farms, and he has been charged with the murder of a female neighbor he accused of supporting the opposition. He was also convicted of possessing an illegal firearm, but remains free pending appeal.
He once stormed the Supreme Court yelling, "Kill the judges!" With no interference from police guards, he entered the chambers of Chief Justice Anthony Gubbay, whose court had begun striking down unconstitutional laws aimed at strengthening Mr. Mugabe's hold on power, and threatened him.
Justice Gubbay, who had been appointed by Mr. Mugabe, resigned after the government said it would not protect him.
Mr. Chinotimba calls Justice Gubbay "an agent of Ian Smith" the defiant leader of the minority white government in the nation then called Rhodesia (1965-1980).
But it was Mr. Mugabe who appointed Mr. Gubbay chief justice.
Mr. Mugabe rewarded Mr. Chinotimba with a large farm.
The militants say they are helping redistribute white-owned farms to landless blacks. But many farms have gone to ruling party lawmakers, Mr. Mugabe's ministers and loyalists like Mr. Chinotimba.
Five years ago, after their pension fund was drained by corrupt officials, war veterans took to the streets to demand Mr. Mugabe's resignation. He gave them a huge payout financed by planned new taxes. When court rulings and strikes destroyed the tax plan, the payouts helped sink the economy, taking Mr. Mugabe's popularity with it.
Over the past two years, ruling party militants led by the war veterans have attacked opposition supporters all over the country. They occupied hundreds of white-owned farms, burned the houses of black farm workers and then used the land as bases for intimidating the country's rural voters, human-rights activists say.
More than 100 people have been killed. Human-rights organizations say nearly all the dead have been black opposition supporters.
Foreign governments have pressed Mr. Mugabe to restore the rule of law. The president promised he would, but the violence has escalated, with dozens killed in February.
Many of the militants are far too young to have had any role in the nation's liberation war. Yet nearly all call themselves war veterans.
"Mugabe is taking advantage of the war vets and our youth," Mr. Mhanda said.
Most of the militants hope that, like Mr. Chinotimba, they will be rewarded for their loyalty.
Mr. Mugabe has called his campaign a new liberation fight, and told his supporters to "wage war" on the opposition.
At youth militia training camps, the younger recruits are indoctrinated by war veterans in what they are told is their generation's battle against imperialism and foreign influence, human-rights groups say.
The rhetoric "gives young people the feeling that they are taking part in a war … an ideological linkage to our forefathers fighting colonial occupation," said Brian Kagoro, a human-rights lawyer.


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