Mugabe’s Campers

8 minute read

Debbie was buying vegetablesat the market when the young men started to harass her. It was 2001 and Zimbabwe was in the grip of election fever. A group of young vigilantes chanting slogans in support of President Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party told the lanky 22-year-old that she had to come with them. She says they chased her home, jumped her fence, and threatened to firebomb her house unless she came out. Finally, her uncle told her to go. She was taken to a youth camp outside Bulawayo; she could tell by the ZANU-PF T shirts some in the camp wore that it was run by the government. That night, she says, the boys came into her dormitory, locked the doors, and took turns raping her. “They told me, ‘If you cry, if you make a noise we’ll beat you’,” she recalls, in a quiet voice, her eyes downcast. Debbie says she was raped almost every night for the next six months. And every day, she was put through an arduous physical training program that included push-ups and 20-km runs. She was also trained how to kill: by strangling with shoelaces, by stabbing with a knife. “They told me it’s a secret for life. ‘If you tell anyone you’ll be killed.'”

Debbie tried to escape the camp three times. Once, when she was caught, she was buried up to her neck as punishment. She finally fled after the camp was closed following the 2002 elections. She now lives in South Africa, but remains terrified that her former captors will somehow find her.

Debbie is far from alone in her suffering. In interviews conducted for the BBC’s Panorama TV program in the slums of Johannesburg, dozens of youths — some traumatized like Debbie, many others now laden with guilt — described similar experiences in government-run camps around Zimbabwe in which youths are, the witnesses say, trained to maim, torture and kill. Youths who have fled the camps say they are used to train Mugabe’s feared youth militia — known as the Green Bombers after the uniforms some wear — that have been so ruthlessly effective at suppressing opposition to the regime. The youths attack suspected opposition supporters with sticks or iron bars, and are known for their brutality. The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, based in Harare, estimates they beat thousands of government opponents in the run-up to the 2002 elections. The Peace Solidarity Trust, another Zimbabwe-based rights group, says they commit the majority of torture that occurs in Zimbabwe.

First set up in late 2001, the camps are officially part of the National Youth Service Training Program, which the government says teaches job skills and patriotism. The witnesses who spoke to the BBC — including former officials who helped run the camps as well as former inmates — identified six remote sites across Zimbabwe; each, they say, holds hundreds of people. The training, which involves not just a grueling program of physical activity but also frequent beatings and food deprivation, slowly breaks people down, then inculcates absolute loyalty to the party.

Take the story of Daniel, 24, who declined to give his real name. Thickset and muscular, he slouches back in his chair as he speaks of raping girls in his camp. He had volunteered for the camps hoping to improve his skills as a carpenter. Instead, when he got there, he says, he was given alcohol, drugs and lessons in how to beat and kill. He was so good at the training that he was soon promoted to lead a platoon of youths. “I was told by the commander to rape,” he says. “You can sleep with three or four the same night. I was enjoying it because I was only choosing the nice girls.”

Like several older boys who were interviewed, Daniel says he was also trained to torture his victims. “You can enjoy it because your mind has been disturbed,” he says, recalling how he used to make his victims stand in a pool of water while electrocuting them in bursts. Other youths say they were trained to hold victims’ heads under water, or to force them to sit on ants’ nests. Many of those who escaped the camps say there are rooms set aside for torture.

Almost 100 escapees have so far been interviewed by the BBC and Zimbabwean human-rights groups. Based on interviews with escapees, human-rights groups estimate that at least half the girls in the camps are regularly raped. A former government official from Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Youth, Gender and Employment Creation says the rape is seen by some at the camps as part of the youths’ training. “You are molding someone to listen to you, so if it means rapes have to take place in order for that person to take instruction from you, then it’s O.K.,” he says. Another ministry insider, who left his job in disgust, said he wrote numerous memos to his superiors about the rapes, but was ignored.

As part of their training, some youths are sent out to beat their own relatives, especially if their family members are critical of the government. Thomas, 23, who was kept in a camp in the west of the country, was forced to attack his own mother. “The commanders told me, ‘If you don’t want to beat her we will beat you,'” he says. “I beat her with a stick.” Such attacks make it almost impossible for the attackers to return to their communities, which in turn makes it easier for the government to control and indoctrinate them. For several hours a day youths in at least six known camps across the country attend lessons where they are taught that opposition supporters are ruining Zimbabwe. This helps them rationalize their violence. “They have to take out the stuff which you have in your mind and put in new stuff which is literally brainwashing,” says one man who has been through the camps. With no adults to trust, the youths learn to obey even the most terrible orders.

One camp commander told the BBC that youths in his camp killed two opposition supporters two years ago. “My superiors instructed that the people must be eliminated,” he says. Human-rights groups in Zimbabwe say they know the location of graves where they believe other victims killed in the last two years are buried.

Mugabe’s government recently more than doubled the budget for the ministry responsible for the camps. Ministers have publicly said it is compulsory for every Zimbabwean youth to attend several months of training, though this is not enshrined in Zimbabwean law. “These guys are going to be used by the ruling party,” says the camp commander, who has already received his instructions prior to the next elections. “Our main concern is that we keep this opposition party out of power.”

After the Panorama program aired in Britain late last month, Zimbabwe’s government denounced its content as “lies” and Western propaganda designed to misrepresent the political situation in Zimbabwe. The government said the camps were used to teach youths patriotism, discipline and entrepreneurial skills. “National Youth Service graduates have no record of violent behavior,” said a statement from the ministry. “No youth, not even one, has ever been coerced to join the National Youth Service,” it added. Zimbabwe’s Youth Minister, Ambrose Mutinhiri, dismissed allegations that girls in the camps were raped, saying they were safely accommodated in their own hostels “cordoned off with a razor-wire fence” and guarded by watchmen.

In Washington last Wednesday, Zimbabwe’s human-rights record dominated a congressional human-rights hearing held by the Committee on International Relations. “The Mugabe regime takes what excess foreign exchange it can obtain and it uses [it] to open new camps,” said Congressman Ed Royce, chairman of the subcommittee on Africa, who says he will now ask the Zimbabwean government for access to the camps. Two weeks ago, not long after the State Department released its annual human-rights report, which condemned Zimbabwe for using “torture by various methods” against those politically opposed to Mugabe’s regime, the United States tightened “smart” sanctions on Zimbabwe by banning transactions with a number of companies with suspected links to ministers close to Mugabe.

“I would like to see a more vigorous effort on the part of the government in the E.U. and our government to track down Robert Mugabe’s assets,” said Royce, adding that he thought African governments, in particular South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki, were not sufficiently critical of Zimbabwe’s human-rights record. And in South Africa two weeks ago the leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance Party, Tony Leon, asked the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into Mugabe’s human-rights record. As of late last week Leon’s office said the ICC had not responded.

The morning after her first night of rape, three years ago, Debbie went to the camp commander to ask for medical help. She was punished for complaining. “He told me the rape is part of training,” she says. Eight months later Debbie discovered she was pregnant; more recently she discovered that she is HIV positive. Her 1-year-old daughter Nunus leaps around happily, unaware of the horrific circumstances in which her life came about. Debbie is likely to be dead before the child grows up. Two weeks ago, she sent a friend in South Africa an SMS message from her safe house. I WANT A GUN, she wrote. The next line said joking, but it was hard to believe that was true.

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