Fearsome Zimbabwe militias are also afraid
When Robert Mugabe’s “green bombers” walk the streets, they know that everyone else is afraid of them. But what everyone else doesn’t realize is that the green bombers are frightened of them too.
The youth militias are so notorious here that they can seem like cartoon bad guys -- one-dimensional and evil. But the ordinary face of evil is much more human, and more menacing.
Two of the young men, who had spent months beating, looting, raping and killing people in their neighborhood near Harare, sat recently with anxious eyes and furrowed brows. They looked so non-threatening that it was difficult to picture them beating up a 12-year-old just for wearing red, or helping to burn a house where people died in the flames in the months before the June 27 presidential runoff. They behaved like guilty boys, defensive about their “chores.”
“I did not feel like fighting my brother,” said one of the men, a 25-year-old who spoke on condition of anonymity, refusing to be identified even by a first name. “We were forced to do these chores.”
The level of violence “just depended on your mood that day, or that hour,” he said.
The interview was conducted in a moving car because the two men were afraid of violent reprisals for talking to a Western journalist. As the car passed along drab suburban streets where children played and women walked to the market, the men’s soft, sheepish murmurs produced a disconcerting tug of sympathy.
Like his victims, the 25-year-old lives with fear. He believes the spirits of those he killed will come and take vengeance. He is afraid to walk alone in his neighborhood, because an angry mob might rise up and kill him for what he has done in Mugabe’s name.
And he’s afraid of his superiors.
“If you don’t do it, they can just tell you, ‘You are a spy;’ they can start beating you, or kill you.”
He’s remorseful, up to a point; but mostly he blames his commanders. He was only “following orders.”
“When we first got to the base we were told the rules and orders, which you can’t resist,” he said. “If the commander tells you what to do, you have to do what he says.”
The youth militias were the storm troopers in the regime’s military-style campaign to kill and disperse the opposition, and to force people to vote for Mugabe in the runoff. Hundreds of bases were set up before the balloting, but most of them have closed down.
The opposition says the violence continues, but at a lower level, and the fear remains.
Mugabe is under intense international pressure to stop the violence, with talks underway in South Africa aimed at a political resolution. But if the international focus on the political situation wanes and Mugabe wants to punish or destroy the opposition, violence could flare again.
For weeks after the runoff, the 25-year-old was afraid to break away from the militia base where he spent most of his time, fearing that he would be attacked. But he recently summoned the nerve and fled.
He looked neat and well dressed, with a spotless T-shirt and a baseball cap. He seemed thoughtful, but deeply troubled. He spoke quietly and hesitantly, especially when admitting his most serious crimes, such as raping and killing.
“We were beating people and leaving them for dead,” he said.
His friend Martin, 28, a member of the same militia, was dressed to look cool in his oversized baseball cap, sweat shirt and jeans. He also wore a big cross around his neck.
Martin, too, recently summoned the courage to leave the camp, but is terrified that he’ll face revenge.
“I’m feeling a little insecure because I now suspect that I can be attacked by some of the ones we are attacking,” he said.
His face was boyish, his eyes jumping nervously. Occasionally, at a difficult question, he giggled awkwardly. He let his friend do most of the talking, sometimes adding a few words, explaining how the militias would beat anyone in the streets who wore red, even young girls. The reason: It might symbolize a red card for Mugabe (a sports term for sending a player off the field). He described beating an old man and breaking his limbs.
The two went through a youth training camp, run by the ruling ZANU-PF political party, for three months in 2002. That’s where they got their green bombers nickname: The trainees wear green berets.
Most people enter the camps hoping for jobs and opportunities, several said. What they get is political brainwashing in support of “unity” and a one-party state, and against the West and opposition “sell-outs.”
The two said they were raised to believe that ZANU-PF was best for Zimbabwe.
“At first, we believed in ZANU-PF because we thought maybe it’s good for the country, but we realized that we end up fighting our brothers and sisters,” Martin said at the beginning of the interview. Later, the two expressed more disillusionment over the fact that they never got paid.
When he started attending ZANU-PF meetings in 2002, Martin began to live with fear.
“I became afraid for the family and my life too. It was impossible for me not to attend the meetings,” he said.
In the recent campaign of state-sponsored violence, the two men spent much of their time drunk and stoned on marijuana.
They would descend on bars in their neighborhood outside Harare, the capital, taking money and whatever they wanted to drink and beating patrons. They always carried gasoline bombs on raids and sometimes burned houses.
They beat people with sticks, fan belts and barbed wire.
“Every day we would bring people back to the base -- anyone who could not chant the [ZANU-PF] slogans and anyone who was wearing red clothes. We would be drunk and we would enjoy it,” the 25-year-old said, referring to the beatings. “We just could end up beating people because we were drunk.”
The two men acknowledged that they had raped some of the 20 girls forced to live at the base, victims who “feared for their lives. They had no choice. They were not going anywhere,” the 25-year-old said. Of the rapes, he said, “At that time maybe we’d be drunk so we’d just enjoy every moment.”
When it came to discussing killings, the conversation was punctuated with pauses and half-spoken sentences. The 25-year-old insisted that he was unsure how many people had died from the beatings.
“Most of the time you will leave them almost dead. You just leave them in agony,” he said.
When the youth militias walked the streets, or diverted traffic, or set up roadblocks, nearly everyone they met was afraid to stand up to them. But the 25-year-old said that power didn’t feel good.
“Ah, no,” he said. “You must not walk alone when everyone is afraid of you. They could form a gang and murder you. They don’t realize that you are being ordered and you can’t resist.
“The problem is, under African culture, the spirits of the dead will come and avenge their deaths.”
When he joined the youth militias, it was an adventure.
“At first we thought it was exciting. I thought I could get something from ZANU-PF to sustain my family, but it was to no avail,” he said. “These days we feel like we’re prisoners.”