Cooking and cleaning for the 'comrades' - then they are raped


ZIMBABWE:Zanu PF base camps have been set up to target the opposition and keep sex slaves, reports a special correspondent in Harare

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 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 terrorise Zimbabweans into voting Robert Mugabe back into power in the one-man presidential run-off 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.

This correspondent 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 5ft, 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 27th run-off 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 on condition of anonymity said that Mugabe himself said the bases would 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 non-existent.

The camps were set up after Zanu-PF's defeat in the March 29th 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.

The 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.

There are three women at the base, she says. The 50 Zanu-PF youth militias who were there before the election have dwindled to 11. 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.

She has hated the organisation 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, 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.

"They said, 'They are activists of the MDC, so they should be killed in order to kill the MDC'."

Elizabeth (30) (not her real name), an MDC activist and vegetable seller, says she was raped at the same base before the election. She says some of the youth militias there wore sacks or cardboard boxes on their heads to hide their faces.

As she was raped, Zanu-PF 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," she said. "I didn't think I was going to survive."

Unlike Asiatu, Elizabeth 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," said 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 feels that, somehow, change is coming. She stares blankly, a slight smile curling her lips. She speaks in a dreamy voice, almost as if she can see it materialising in thin air. "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. When she expresses her hopes, though, 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. - ( Los Angeles Times-Washington Post service)