Zimbabwe sex slave confides her ordeal

From a Times Staff Writer

She has to call the young men her “comrades.” She cooks food for the comrades and serves them. She sweeps the comrades’ floor and cleans up after them.

And whenever any of the comrades want sex, she is raped.

Asiatu, 21, is a prisoner of the comrades at a command base of the ruling ZANU-PF party, one of 900 such camps set up by the party to terrorize Zimbabweans into voting for Robert Mugabe in the one-man presidential runoff late last month and extending his 28-year rule.

The election is over, but the terror isn’t.

“I’m still at the base. I’m being raped by four or five men daily,” she whispers, bursting into tears. “Any time they want, night or day.


“To me, a comrade is a murderer, someone who’s cruel.”

She has been at the base for about 10 weeks, ever since she was abducted in the middle of the night because her mother is a supporter of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

She has to stay most of each day and night at the base, a sex slave of the thuggish youth militias unleashed by the government. The Times interviewed her during one of the several short daily periods she is allowed to leave the ZANU-PF base.

When asked why she doesn’t escape during that time, Asiatu gives a chilling explanation: “They promised me if I run away, my mother will be killed.”

A slight, pretty figure, about 5 feet tall, Asiatu wears a flowing black dress with splashes of red. Her braids are tied back by an extravagant puff of red tulle. Her eyes are sad and fearful. And she rarely smiles.

She says she looked forward to the June 27 runoff and the result, assuming that she would be freed.

But with the election over and no sign of her imprisonment ending, she has lost hope. She is fearful she may be pregnant, and terrified she may have HIV/AIDS. She is the sole breadwinner in her family, earning some money selling vegetables, but has not been able to because she spends most of her time at the base.


“I pray to God most of the time. I pray, ‘You are the one who knows my future. Help me. Stop this happening to me.’ ”

A base commander who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity said that Mugabe had said the bases would continue to operate. Some in the ruling party say new operations are being planned. But the commander said that there was no government money to feed the youth militias at the bases and that supporting them had become difficult.

That could be a problem for ZANU-PF: For most of the young shock troops, their main motivation is the hope of a quick dollar to feed their families, with food scarce and opportunities to get ahead almost nonexistent.

The camps were set up after ZANU-PF’s defeat in the March 29 parliamentary and presidential elections. They provided a base from which to target the opposition and intimidate voters -- burning houses, displacing people and beating, maiming or killing activists.

Kindergartens, schools and houses were commandeered for the bases. Some outposts, deep in the bush and modeled on the bases of Zimbabwe’s liberation war, consist of nothing more than a piece of land with a tent, a desk and a chair for the commander, with several hundred militia fighters standing guard.

In most of the bases across the country, young women have been forced to cook for the youth militias, serve them and be their sex slaves, according to young women and men forced to attend the camps daily.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew from the June 27 runoff vote because of the violence. But Mugabe, who finished second to Tsvangirai in March, pushed ahead with the runoff despite international condemnation. He was declared the winner soon afterward and hastily inaugurated.

The MDC reports many cases of unwanted pregnancies among victims of rape. Written testimonies by victims show that many times women were raped because they or their close relatives were MDC activists. However, the party does not have a tally of how many rapes have been reported in the political violence.

Asiatu’s ordeal began one afternoon when 35 ZANU-PF militia members came to her house because her mother is an MDC member.

“I was eating and they kicked my food,” she says. “They started beating me, saying I was an MDC member. They said I should be killed.” Three days later they came at night and forced her to go to the base.

“I was just crying. I thought they wanted to kill me,” she says.

To protect her, The Times is not disclosing the location of the base. She does not go by the name Asiatu in her community.

On her first day at the base, she says, she was severely beaten on her back, buttocks and the soles of her feet with wooden poles.

“They said they should leave me to faint in order to satisfy their bosses. They said they were ‘treating’ me to make me a ZANU-PF member.”

After a week, the daily beatings stopped, but the rapes began.

Wiping tears from her eyes, she describes the first time: “Someone came and gave me a plate of sadza [the staple cornmeal porridge] and said, ‘Go in that room with this plate of sadza.’ And there was a man sleeping in bed and he raped me.”

There are three women at the base, she says. The number of militia members there has dropped to 11 from 50 before the election. There are political meetings at the base, with songs and slogans.

“I just go to save my life. But I will never be ZANU-PF,” Asiatu says. She has hated ZANU-PF since her mother’s younger sister was kidnapped and slain in political violence after 2000.

Before the election, she says, she saw hundreds of people beaten at the base, about 10 to 50 people a day. She says she saw two MDC activists stoned to death. Militia members pelted the two with bricks and rocks, taking about three hours to kill the men.

“They said, ‘They are activists of the MDC, so they should be killed in order to kill the MDC.’ ”

Elizabeth, 30, an MDC activist and vegetable seller, says she was raped at the same base before the election. She says some militia members wore sacks or cardboard boxes on their heads to hide their faces. (Elizabeth also is not known by that name in her community.)

As she was raped, militia members and other young women at the base sang songs taunting the opposition, such as, “Dig a hole and bury yourself, because your time has come.”

“It made it more terrifying. I didn’t think I was going to survive,” she says.

Unlike Asiatu, she was not kept at the base as a sex slave, but raped as a punishment for her MDC loyalties. She later reported the names of her assailants to the police, who arrested two men. But they were released two days later without charges.

“Right now I fear they will come again,” says Elizabeth, who has decided to drop out as an MDC activist. “I just want to live a quiet life. I’m just scared. But I’ll still support the MDC.”

Despite everything, she still believes that, somehow, change is coming. She stares into midair, a slight smile curling her lips. She speaks in a dreamy voice, almost as if she can see it materializing in front of her.

“I think it will come,” she says. “I don’t know when, but I know it will come one day.”

Asiatu has given up believing in the possibility of her own freedom, yet she has not lost her belief that the country will somehow be transformed.

“If the situation continues like this, the country will remain ashes,” she says. But when she expresses her hopes, the fear seems to lift for a moment. Her voice is firm and clear: “There’s going to be a change. I feel change coming.”

Then it is time to return to the base.