Like their victims, Zimbabwe youth militias live in fear

An ordinary face emerges from turbulent past

An unidentified Zimbabwean showed injuries that were inflicted by youth militia 'green bombers.' Some militia members say they live in fear for the acts they commit. An unidentified Zimbabwean showed injuries that were inflicted by youth militia "green bombers." Some militia members say they live in fear for the acts they commit. (howard burditt/Reuters/File 2003)
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Los Angeles Times / July 29, 2008

HARARE, Zimbabwe - When Robert Mugabe's "green bombers" walk the streets, they know 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 at the same time more menacing.

Two of the young men who spent months beating, looting, raping, and killing people in their Harare neighborhood sat recently with anxious eyes and furrowed brows.

They looked so nonthreatening, it was difficult to picture them beating up a 12-year-old just for wearing red, or helping to burn a house where trapped people died in the flames in the months leading up to the June 27 presidential runoff. They behaved like guilty boys.

"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 feared reprisals for talking to a Western journalist.

As the car trawled by drab suburban streets where women walked to the market and children played, their soft, sheepish murmurs evoked a disconcerting echo of sympathy.

Like his victims, the 25-year-old lives with fear. He believes the spirits of those he killed will wreak vengeance. He is afraid to walk alone in his neighborhood because an angry mob might rise 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."

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 established in the run-up to the vote, but most bases closed down in recent weeks.

But the opposition says the violence continues at a lower level, and the fear remains. Mugabe is under international pressure to stop the violence, with talks aimed at a political resolution underway in South Africa. But violence could flare again.

For weeks after the runoff, the 25-year-old was afraid to leave the militia base where he spent most of his time, fearful 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, including rape and murder.

"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.

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