Church leaders in southern Africa have accused the Zimbabwean government of sacrificing an entire generation of young people to maintain its grip on power. In a chilling report, the Solidarity Peace Trust documents how children as young as 10 are being drafted for military training. A Radio Netherlands’ reporter has just returned from Zimbabwe. He travelled there undercover – due to the severe restrictions the authorities place on foreign journalists – and spoke to former youth militia members and their victims.
Two years ago, Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF government established the so-called National Youth Service Training. The programme was designed to provide job skills to young people and instil in them a sense of national pride and history. Instead, the young people are being brainwashed to intimidate the opposition MDC or Movement for Democratic Change, says John, a 25-year-old youth militia defector.
“We were taught that the MDC is bad. I think we were being prepared for war against the MDC. We were told not to think. Our leaders would think for us. We were ZANU-PF’s armed-wing. We were free to do whatever we wanted and nobody questioned us.”
Before being deployed, the youth militia, both male and female, spend six months in training camps with up to 25-hundred recruits. Sexual abuse and rape are rife in the camps. Girls and young women speak of being raped repeatedly, often daily, for months on end. Archbishop Pius Ncube of the Solidarity Peace Trust is incensed that the government is knowingly allowing this to continue, particularly since Zimbabwe has one of the world’s highest HIV rates.
“These ministers are absolute hypocrites, Mugabe included, because none of their daughters are put in these camps. It’s deliberately being done. It just shows how evil Mugabe’s regime is, how they are destroying the lives of these young people, for their own interests, just to remain in power.”
Human rights abuses
Often drugged or intoxicated, the youth militia operate in groups attacking anyone they suspect of being an MDC supporter. Since they were first deployed in January 2002, the youth militia have been responsible for a significant portion of the human rights abuses being committed in Zimbabwe, including murder, torture, rape and the destruction of property.
The victims speak of random persecution. Ignatious Chaitezvi, for instance, was attacked by five youth militia. “They started assaulting me, accusing me of selling them out to the MDC. They beat me. And then they hit me with an axe. They were aiming for the back of my skull, but I turned, so they hit my eye. I lost my eye, but I think it’s God who did that for me. It’s better to lose an eye than your life.”
The government of President Robert Mugabe has decreed that all Zimbabweans between 10 and 30 years of age must take part in the National Youth Service Training. Young people who do not will be barred from tertiary institutions, such as universities, colleges, nurse training and teacher training schools. It has been reported that in future youth militia members will be posted in classrooms in all institutions of higher education, presumably to ensure that professors and students toe the ruling ZANU-PF party line.
The youth service includes military training. Two months ago, the Ministry of Defence announced plans to use the children and young people as a reserve force to defend the nation. Since many of the recruits are under 18 years of age, this in effect amounts to State training of child soldiers.
So far, 50,000 children and young people have gone through the National Youth Service Training. Archbishop Pius of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second biggest city, is extremely concerned about the impact on his nation’s youth. “The government is politicising young people,” he says, “brainwashing them into Mugabe’s party ideology so that these young people become like robots.”
Even if the ZANU-PF government were to be replaced today, say human rights groups, the youth militia will leave a lasting scar on Zimbabwean society. “The social fabric is going to be in ruins at the end of this,” says an anonymous human rights worker. “Unfortunately the youth militia have often tortured in the very communities in which they were raised. How do we re-integrate them?”
Radio Netherlands links:• The collapse of Zimbabwe