- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2003

JOHANNESBURG — Young Zimbabweans who fled recently to South Africa yesterday recounted, shamefaced, the savage crimes they committed as members of pro-government youth militias.

Speaking in the presence of Zimbabwean and South African bishops who denounced the atrocities committed by the National Youth Service, they talked in low voices, their gaze fixed on the floor, of how they killed, burned and raped.

Invariably, after a few moments, the stream of words faltered as they started to sob.

Opposition parties in Zimbabwe have long accused the militia of large numbers of attacks on critics of President Robert Mugabe, who won a disputed re-election in 2000.

The bishops, releasing the results of a no-holds-barred probe into the Zimbabwean program, said that the 30,000 to 50,000 youngsters in the service — some as young as 11 — are themselves maltreated.

“The youth militias so created are used as instruments of the ruling party, to maintain their hold on power by whatever means necessary, including torture, rape, murder and arson,” the report said.

Debbie, 22, one of the former members of the militia, held her year-old daughter Nothula (“Peace” in Sindebele) on her lap at the press conference.

“I was raped by so many different men, I don’t know whose baby it is,” she said.

Debbie, who gave only one name, said the female members used to share a room with boys at the training camp at Ntabanzinduna, near the western Zimbabwean city of Bulawayo, “and at night they would rape us.”

She said she has tested positive for HIV, the AIDS virus.

Thabo, 21, said he learned to make gasoline bombs at the training program.

In the camp where he spent 10 months, he said he had raped several of the girls who slept in the same dormitory.

Thabo, who also gave only one name, said in January last year he joined some 50 militiamen in invading the home of an opposition politician.

“We twisted his head, we beat him with sjamboks [long leather whips], iron bars, crowbars, in front of his wife and seven children — they were crying. … Then we left his body by the river.”

Thabo said the militia leader used to give the youth beer and marijuana before they went out on an operation. “When we got back to the camp we would have a party.”

Wesley, 19, said: “There are many things we did … some of them, if I think of them, make me feel like crying.”

When he joined, he said, he was promised money, comfort, land for his family — but was left empty-handed.

The three youths, who are seeking political asylum in South Africa, are among hundreds who have fled the youth service. Isolated and penniless in Johannesburg, they dream about returning one day to their homeland.

“If my country is going to be OK, I’m going back,” Thabo said.

The bishops, whose report criticized Mr. Mugabe’s party for using its youth service to carry out brutal crimes aimed at “inculcating blatantly antidemocratic, racist and xenophobic attitudes,” predicted that returning would be difficult.

“Our youths have been turned into vandals and have become a lost generation in the process,” they said.

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