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Sunday, December 28, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Sexual atrocities reported in Zimbabwe militias
By Michael Wines
BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe Last March, Debbie Siyangapi took the pulpit in an Anglican church in Zimbabwe's second-largest city and confessed her darkest secret to several hundred worshippers.
Siyangapi, 22, told listeners she had been abducted from a Bulawayo street market in November 2001 and forcibly enrolled in the National Youth Service, a ragtag, government-run paramilitary group formed three years ago by the government of President Robert Mugabe to stifle growing political dissent among Zimbabwe's civilians.
Her duties, however, were not political: During her nine-month stay in a training camp and later at a paramilitary base, she said, she was raped almost nightly, sometimes several times a night, by some of the hundreds of young male conscripts there.
To the extent she had proof, she offered it to the crowd: a 6-month-old baby girl named Nocthula, or Peace.
"At night, they removed the globes from the light sockets," Siyangapi said recently in South Africa, to which she fled after leaving Bulawayo in July. "Sometimes there were 10 boys. They didn't leave until 3 a.m. If you cried, you were beaten."
Siyangapi is one of the few women to speak publicly about the prevalence of rape and other sexual atrocities in the Zimbabwe military. But a growing number of human-rights groups have charged in recent months that forced sex and sexual torture are routine elements of life for men and women in the Youth Service, and are used both as rewards and as punishments.
In a report issued in September, the Solidarity Peace Trust, a faith-based group of southern African human-rights activists, accused the youth paramilitary group of sanctioning "the rape, and multiple rape, of young girls by boys undergoing training with them and by their military instructors."
"The resulting pregnancies and infections with sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, not only devastate the lives of the youth concerned but are creating a terrible legacy for the nation," the report stated.
The Amani Trust, perhaps the most active human-rights group in Zimbabwe, has estimated that as many as 1,000 women are being held in Youth Service camps as sexual servants. "What's happening in the camps I would call forced concubinage," said Anthony Reeler, a former Amani Trust director who has been barred by the government from entering Zimbabwe. "It's much more in line with the 'comfort women' of the Japanese and Philippine armed forces" of World War II.
Jenny Williams, the leader of the feminist organization Women of Zimbabwe Arise, said that despite the rapes, the ranks of women within the youth militia were only increasing, a function of Zimbabwe's collapsing economy and social structure.
"There's a big recruitment drive," she said. "And right now, youngsters are going voluntarily to these camps, for two reasons. One is that they have nothing to do they're bored out of their little skulls. And two, because there's no food in their homes, their parents are not stopping them from going, because it's one less mouth to feed. That's the sad reality."
Williams, who said she knew Siyangapi, said her story was consistent with that told by other women who have been enrolled in the youth militia, widely called the Green Bombers after their olive-colored fatigues.
The government cast the Green Bombers as a sort of domestic Peace Corps when the militia's creation was announced in 2000.
The reality, say human-rights observers and some Green Bombers who have fled to South Africa, is different. In the past three years, they charge, up to 50,000 young men and women have been encamped in Zimbabwe's interior, subjected to crude and grueling military training, indoctrinated in government propaganda and dispatched to ensure government control of the population.
The enrollees, male and female alike, are said to range from as young as 11 to their early 30s. They are said to be generally ill-fed and poorly trained, and they usually live in large dormitories.
The youths' major duty, they say, has been to smother support for the Movement for Democratic Change, the rival of Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, by terrorizing its leaders and their supporters. Mugabe's disputed victory in Zimbabwe's 2002 presidential election has been attributed in part to militias in at least 123 bases that discouraged voting by supporters of the opposition.
In its September report, the Solidarity Peace Trust called the youth militia "one of the most commonly reported violators of human rights" in Zimbabwe.
The Green Bombers' camps are tightly protected, and there is little firsthand information about activities there. In a two-hour interview in South Africa, Siyangapi said she was released from captivity by militia commanders in July 2002 because she was pregnant. She gave birth to a girl that September and fled Zimbabwe after intelligence operatives heard her describe her experience to witnesses at the Anglican church service in Bulawayo.
Siyangapi said she had been forced into the militia after a group of youths beat and threatened her. Her description of militia life mirrored that of others: a boot camp marked by endurance runs, push-ups and beatings; a sporadic diet of horse meat and ground corn; indoctrination with hundreds of others in pro-government songs; and widespread drunkenness.
During much of her time in the militia, Siyangapi said, she was raped virtually nightly by at least one of 50 paramilitary soldiers who were favorites of the camp's leader. After one unsuccessful attempt to escape in April 2002, she said, she was ordered to dig a hole. Paramilitary soldiers buried her up to her neck, she said, and left her there for a day.
After she left the Green Bombers in the summer of 2002, seven months pregnant, Siyangapi said, she learned that she was infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Now on anti-retroviral drugs, she appeared healthy but said she did not yet know whether her daughter was also infected.
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