In Zimbabwe, the cruelty goes on

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Los Angeles Times / July 8, 2008

HARARE, Zimbabwe - She has to call the young men her "comrades." She cooks food for the comrades and serves them. She sweeps their floor and cleans up after them.

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

Asiatu, 21, is a prisoner of the comrades at a command base of the ruling ZANU-PF, one of 900 set up by the party to terrorize Zimbabweans into voting Robert Mugabe back into power in the one-man presidential runoff election late last month.

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 Los Angeles Times interviewed her during one of the several short daily periods she is allowed to leave the base.

When asked why she doesn't escape during her free time, she 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 she would be freed.

But with the election over and no sign to the end of her imprisonment, she has lost hope. She is fearful she might be pregnant, and terrified she has AIDS. She is the sole breadwinner in her family, but has not been able to sell vegetables because she spends all her time at the base.

"I pray 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 himself said the bases will continue to operate. Some members of the ruling party say new operations are being planned. But the commander said there was no government money to feed the youth militias at the bases and that supporting them had become a major problem.

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 to provide bases from which to target opposition activists.

At most of the bases, young women have been forced to serve ZANU-PF youth militias, and men forced to attend the camps daily.

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

The opposition MDC reports an upsurge in pregnancies among victims of rape. Written testimonies by victims show many cases of women raped because they or their close relatives were MDC activists. The party does not have a figure on the number of rapes reported in the continuing 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."

To protect her, the location of the base in Zimbabwe is not identified. She does not go by the name Asiatu in her community.

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," she said.

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

Elizabeth, 30, an MDC activist and vegetable seller, says she was raped at the same base before the election.

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