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In Zimbabwe, the hunters are now the hunted

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The "green bomber" dropped into Club M5 the other day to get a bottle of Lion beer to go, but he wasn't fast enough. Right away he was surrounded by five members of the opposition, people he used to beat up, in a township bar where he used to be king.

"They just surrounded me. They started accusing me of this and that. They just wanted revenge. They said: 'Now we got you alone. You used to trouble us during your heyday. Now it's our day.' "

He ran, chased by the drunken group.

The green bombers were the ruling party's shock troops, thugs who killed and terrorized in the name of President Robert Mugabe before elections this year. Just a few months ago, the thought of challenging one of them was unthinkable in Harare's townships, stagnant and hopeless places where young men hung around sharing cheap beer in plastic bottles and waiting for the "Old Man" to die.

But after Mugabe was forced into a power-sharing deal with the opposition in September, there was a quickening: People were impatient, exuberant, hopeful and fearful of betrayal all at once. Now that the deal has collapsed, the frustration in the capital's townships is palpable, and the specter of spiraling violence looms over their shabby streets.

People want justice -- and without it, some warn darkly, they'll take matters into their own hands.

Out of hiding

Amos, a 24-year-old activist for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, spent nearly seven months in hiding after the first-round presidential election in March. During that reign of terror by ruling party thugs, his stepmother was badly beaten in her rural village. Sheep belonging to the family went missing. Eight people in the area were killed, he says, and many houses burned.

Round-faced and boyish, Amos looks about 18. When he left the safe house in September and went to his home village, he was after revenge.

"I had someone who I wanted to fix," he says.

He woke at dawn feeling brave and powerful. He ran to the hut of the thug who had beaten his stepmother, banged on the door, raised his catapult and a large stone, and waited. When the door opened, he let fly.

"It hit him in the eye. He was just screaming," Amos remembers. "I was happy. I was feeling brave, that whatever happens, if it's war, I'm prepared to stand up and fight him."

Samson Bopoto also spent months hiding in the countryside. Every night, he and other MDC activists expected to be killed.

"Now the tables have turned. It's now ZANU-PF are panicking," said Bopoto, 34, an MDC youth organizer who lives in a Harare township. He and his comrades have taken back the local bar. They sit for hours singing MDC songs, and the former ZANU-PF thugs are nowhere to be seen.

Sometimes the ex-thugs come to his house secretly at night, trying to buy forgiveness or at least protection.

Bopoto says it isn't easy to stop the MDC members from taking revenge. Many are waiting until Cabinet posts are settled and the MDC takes its share of power.

"Still, our wounds are open. . . . Just imagine seeing somebody who's the guy who beat up your mom. They say, 'Sorry guys, I was forced to do that.' But we still have a lot of pain."

The power-sharing deal leaves the way open for prosecutions. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai says Mugabe should not be held responsible for past crimes, but the question of immunity or prosecution for others hangs unanswered, poisoning the talks.

But without justice, Bopoto said, there could be violence.

"Those people should be brought to book, rather than a relative taking revenge. If that person killed my brother, you should allow justice to take its course. If that doesn't happen, then a person will take it into their own hands. It will cause a sort of uprising because I can't be happy if I see you, who killed my brother, still at the beer hall, living your daily life whilst I'm missing my loved relative."

Terrified of attack

The green bomber looks exhausted. His clothes are shabby; he's not the well-dressed 25-year-old of a few months back. He doesn't leave home most days.

When he does go out, his past quickly catches up: Sometimes he runs into one of his victims at the bus stop, badly scarred with burns. He slinks away.

The green bomber is no longer active, though he says you can never really escape membership in the ZANU-PF youth militia. He no longer sleeps at the militia base, though he's often afraid to sleep at his own house, terrified of attack.

"I started fearing for my life and for my family and thinking, how am I going to survive in that environment every day?" He's planning to move his family to an area where no one knows him.

He used to beat up children just for wearing the wrong color, and set houses on fire with people inside. Interviewed in June, when he was still living at the base, he said he was just "following orders."

Now that his own life is in danger, his remorse seems heartfelt.

"It makes me feel bad about myself. At that time I should have realized what I was doing was wrong. I should have resisted. But I couldn't even do it. I was just trying to protect my family."

His life feels poisoned.

"Sometimes I can't get out of bed. You just want to sleep the whole day," he said. "The feeling is bad, when you think they can just hunt me.

"I feel . . . " He paused. " . . . that I don't want to feel."

Dixon is a Times staff writer.

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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