He may look like any ordinary, unemployed teenage youth in baggy pants and an old T-shirt, but Thabo (not his real name) is haunted by ghastly memories.
In January 2002, ahead of Zimbabwe's presidential elections, Thabo was among some 70 National Youth Service militiamen who besieged the home of the chairman of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in ward 5 of Tsholotsho, in northern Matabeleland. The youth allegedly forced the family to watch as they beat the man with an iron bar, then strangled him. Independent human rights monitors confirmed the murder.
Thabo was speaking on Friday in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the launch of a report on the Zimbabwe government's youth militia and its track record of human right abuses, titled "National youth service training - 'shaping youths in a truly Zimbabwean manner'".
The report, covering the period October 2000 to August 2003, was produced by the Solidarity Peace Trust, chaired by Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city, and Anglican Bishop Rubin Phillip of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. The trust has called on regional leaders and churches to condemn "this vile system" and to press for the disbandment of the militia.
"African leaders support one another, but are blind to the abuse of citizens," said Ncube. "The militia is killing the soul of young people in Zimbabwe."
Since it was set up in 2000, the youth militia, known locally as the "Green Bombers" from the colour of their uniforms, have grown into one of the most commonly reported violators of human rights in Zimbabwe, the report said. Allegations of murder, torture, rape, arson, destruction of property and denial of food aid and health care to opposition members by the militia have been documented by Physicians for Human Rights, based in Denmark, and Amnesty International, among other rights groups.
The National Youth Service, supposedly a voluntary training programme for vocational skills, disaster management, patriotism and moral education, has become, the report noted, a paramilitary force for the ruling ZANU-PF. By the end of 2002, an estimated 9,000 youngsters had undergone formal militia training in five main camps, with up to 20,000 trained less formally in the districts. Training initially was for six months, but was reduced to 120 days.
The government has repeatedly stated its intention to make youth service compulsory, with access to tertiary education and public sector positions linked to participation. "It's a partial policy at the moment, but with so little employment in Zimbabwe right now, jobs are increasingly being reserved for youth militia," a human rights activist told IRIN.
In July the government announced plans for weapons training for the militia. Ministry of Defence Sydney Sekeramayi was quoted in the government press as saying that the National Youth Service could form a reserve force, under military command, to defend the nation.
"By announcing an 'intention' to train youth in weaponry, the minister had finally owned up to a 'de facto' government policy. It is now beyond doubt that the youth militia training is in fact paramilitary training under the guise of a national youth service. According to defected militia, it is often brutal and brutalising," the report said.
Children as young as 11 have reportedly been through the youth service programme, whose stated catchment age is between 12 and 30 years. Such training could amount to creating child soldiers, analysts have noted. The new Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in force since February 2002, raises the minimum age for military training to 18 and requires strict safeguards for voluntary recruitment.
"Actual training on weapons to youth under 18 amounts to recruitment of child soldiers," explained Enrique Restoy, Africa programme officer at the London-based Coalition Against the Use of Child Soldiers. "We condemn the use of children and youth as instruments of repression and torture."
The militia has been deployed in force during local and national elections. "They have been blatantly used by ZANU-PF as a campaign tool, being given impunity and implicit powers to mount roadblocks, disrupt MDC rallies and intimidate voters," said the report. Alcohol and marijuana consumption occurs routinely during training and deployment, according to former militia members and their victims.
"The militia is turning children into little vandals who murder their uncle and torture their neighbours," said the human rights activist, who asked not to be named.
The youth militia allegedly operate with police complicity and under the command of war veterans. The Kamativi training camp in northern Matabeleland is reportedly run by the notorious "Black Jesus", a war veteran jailed in 2001 for the murders of three opposition activists in Kariba, northern Zimbabwe, but was later freed.
A former militiaman, aged 25, interviewed by researchers in August, explained: "When you move as a group, we felt that we were feared a lot ... Our source of power was this encouragement we were getting, particularly from the police and others ... It was instilled in us that whenever we go out, we are free to do whatever we want."
Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena denied police complicity, or that there were widespread acts of political violence by the youth brigades. "For some time we've tried to investigate these cases and found these allegations to be of no substance at all."
He told IRIN that he could remember only one case of the police arresting militiamen, for "disorderly behaviour", earlier this year in the town of Chitungwiza, 35 km from the capital, Harare. "I'm not saying that all National Youth Service members are law-abiding, but these [allegations] are so exaggerated they become meaningless."
Besides reportedly abusing others, youth militias are abused themselves. Girls have detailed cases of systematic rape in camps by trainees, camp instructors, senior commanders and ZANU-PF officials. Among 35 urban youth militia, who in 2002 approached a local human rights group for help, six girls were pregnant. The youngest girl raped in the group was aged 11.
Debbie (not her real name) joined the militia at Tabazinduna camp, 40 km from Bulawayo, after they threatened to burn down her family home. "Boys and girls slept in the same dorm and we were raped nightly, I don't know by who and by how many," she said at the launch of the report.
When she reported the rapes to a local ZANU-PF official, he allegedly pulled out a gun and threatened to kill her if she persisted. Debbie became pregnant and HIV-positive before eventually fleeing Zimbabwe.
Debbie's one-year-old baby girl, named Nocthula (peace), played on the floor while her mother on Friday described the daily and nightly routine: wake up at 3:00 am, run 20 km, do 200 press-ups, roll in the mud, eat donkey meat, sing ZANU-PF slogans, watch the torture of opposition members brought into the camp, be raped at night.
Nurses and doctors in Matabeleland North confirm a sharp rise in teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases since the opening of Kamativi training camp. Sexual abuse is ever more dangerous, given that an estimated one-third of adult Zimbabweans are HIV positive.
While some youth join the militia voluntarily, others are coerced or lured with promises, the report said. "They came to our school and told us we would get skills training and jobs afterwards, money and food, a trip to Malaysia to be trained as soldiers and land for our parents - but we got nothing," recounted a former militiaman who fled to South Africa. He would not disclose his name for fear of retribution.
Places in the civil service and tertiary education institutions, like nursing, teaching and journalism colleges, are given to militia, while qualified candidates without proof of youth service are turned away, said the report. A nursing training hospital reported receiving orders in January that half its 24 training placements had to be for militia.
"[The authorities] have introduced into the body politic a cancer, which now spreads through the nation unchecked and leaves destruction in its wake. The nation's youth are being deliberately corrupted and brutalised ... for no other purpose but to carry forward ZANU-PF's political agenda," said an appeal by Southern African church leaders.
They called for stronger action from regional governments. "If our African leadership were truly concerned about the ideals beautifully crafted in NEPAD [New Partnership for Africa's Development] and African Union declarations, they would grasp the nettle and deal with real issues," said Kevin Dowling, the Catholic bishop of Rustenburg in South Africa.
The church leaders appealed for the closure of the national youth service training programme and its training camps, surrender of weapons in the hands of youth militias, investigation of crimes committed and prosecution, and a programme of rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
They urged that disbandment of the youth militia should be one condition to be met before Zimbabwe is readmitted into the Commonwealth after its suspension last year.