- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2004

JOHANNESBURG — Deserters from a youth militia program set up in Zimbabwe say they suffered a harsh regimen of hunger and beatings and, in some cases, were sent out to attack and rape opponents of the government.

An estimated 50,000 youths have passed through the militia — nicknamed the “Green Bombers” for the color of its drill uniforms — since it was established in 2001.

The state allocated $37 million in 2002 to what is described as three months of national service and doubled the budget in 2003.

Deserters reaching neighboring South Africa often look like Bongani Moyo, who stands 6 feet 3 inches tall in his worn-out tennis shoes but has spindly legs and has lost the fat below his eyes, pushing the sockets back and giving his head a skull-like appearance.

“We would be sent out into the countryside to punish people who support the opposition,” the 25-year-old told The Washington Times after his escape from a militia base near Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, Bulawayo.

“We would beat people and sometimes burn down their homes. Other times, we were ordered to rape women who did not support the ruling party.

“If a militia refused to do this, he himself would be raped, and I saw this happening to other young men. I was not brave enough to refuse, so I did what I was told, and I fear now that I must have AIDS.”

In late February, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported that it had interviewed nearly 100 women who had been held in the militia camps. Half of them, including an 11-year-old girl, had been raped, they said.

The BBC documentary is to be shown in Washington today at a hearing of the House International Relations subcommittee on Africa dealing with rights abuses in Zimbabwe.

Gabriel Shumba, a human rights lawyer who lives in Johannesburg, met with State Department officials and legislators on Capitol Hill yesterday, describing torture he endured under Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s regime. Mr. Shumba also spoke about the youth camps, comparing them to Nazi youth indoctrination.

“When you train kids as young as 13 to murder and rape, you are condemning a whole generation and the future of the country,” he said.

In the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, the state-owned Herald newspaper denounced the BBC and other reports critical of the youth-training program, calling them “a glaring fiction” compiled by journalists “plagued with ignorance and malice.”

But a former official with the Ministry of Youth, Gender and Employment Creation, which oversees the militia program, told the BBC: “You are molding somebody to listen to you. If it means that rapes have to take place for that person to take instructions from you, then it’s okay.”

Human rights groups say recruits are indoctrinated to defend Mr. Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

“We were beaten for no reason, and our food was not enough for even a small dog,” said Shadreck Nsimbi, 21, who reached South Africa eight months ago after fleeing one of the camps.

“Our only practical work was to go out into the countryside and punish those who did not carry ZANU-PF party cards or anyone who did not attend party rallies.”

Mr. Moyo’s nightmare began in mid-2002 when he entered a training camp near Mount Darwin, 60 miles northeast of Harare, lured by the promise of a job.

“It was worse than anything in my life,” he said.

“There were few meals, we were woken before sunrise and made to run maybe [8.5 miles] through the bush, and we were beaten nearly every day. The commanders and trainers used a lot of mbanje (marijuana) and forced us to also smoke it.

“Then I was deployed to a rural area near Bulawayo, and that is when I died as a human,” he said.

“Every day, I would wake up and go out like a machine to beat up those who were said to have attended opposition rallies. We even beat mothers whose children had been seen at MDC meetings.

“I was living in hell 24 hours a day, but I had no feeling left for anything, even for myself.”

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