On the rampage – Zimbabwe’s youth militia

Inside the Third Chimurenga cover
Inside the Third Chimurenga cover

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Original broadcast: September 3, 2003

In 2000, the Zimbabwean government created the National Youth Service, allegedly to provide skills and teach patriotism to the southern African nation’s youth. But the National Youth Service had a far more sinister goal: to intimidate and silence all opposition to President Robert Mugabe (1924-2019) and his ruling ZANU-PF party. Former youth militia members recount the beatings, torture and murders they were forced to carry out. And victims speak of the youth militia’s random and at times relentless persecution of anyone suspected of belonging to the opposition. Eric Beauchemin traveled undercover to Zimbabwe and reveals a chilling tale of brainwashing, political manipulation and the undermining of an entire generation.


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “On the Rampage: Zimbabwe’s youth militia”. Because of the severe restrictions placed on foreign journalists, Eric Beauchemin travelled undercover to Zimbabwe.

I lost my eye. If I didn’t turn, they were going to kill me because they were aiming the back of my skull.
We were the armed wing for the ZANU-PF.
The government is politicising the young people, brainwashing them into party ideology of Mugabe.
They say you support opposition MDC and you have to go to Britain.
Unfortunately the youth militia have tortured in the very communities where they were raised.

Two years ago, Zimbabwe established a National Youth Service training programme. It’s designed to provide school leavers with job skills and instill in them a sense of patriotism and moral education. A noble goal in a nation where unemployment rates exceed 80%. But the reality has been quite different, says a human rights worker.

Something that stands out in my mind is the first lot of youth militia who were trained at the end of 2001. They were deployed in the last week of December, and on January 8th, they were actually two statements released. The one was released by Eliot Manyika who was by then the minister of youth and gender, in which he defended the youth militia and said that they had been cleaning the streets of the suburbs of Harare and they had tended a flowerbed outside some shopping centre and how grateful everyone was to them. On the same day, Amnesty International made a release in which they expressed absolute shock and horror at the behaviour of the youth militia who already after two weeks of deployment had been directly implicated in no fewer than 7 murders and in massive destruction, torture, looting of shops in shopping centres.

The violence would only increase in the run-up to the March 2002 presidential elections. The ruling ZANU-PF candidate, Robert Mugabe defeated the opposition MDC or Movement for Democratic Change in a poll described by international observers as not free or fair.

The youth have been used mainly as a strategic election weapon on behalf of ZANU-PF. They go around terrorising anyone believed to support the opposition MDC and this is absolutely blanket. The reports from around the country are just consistent that they are actually there to terrorise the opposition. They’ve played all sorts of roles since election time, setting up roadblocks, insisting that people had ZANU-PF cards. If they didn’t, they then confiscated the IDs, the identity cards and without an identity card, you can’t vote. So to lose your ID card was to lose your vote.

The youth militias receive training at nearly 150 camps across the country. The biggest is in Kamativi, in western Zimbabwe. The town and the surrounding area are an MDC bastion. Thomas, who’s 50, used to live in Kamativi. He was a long-time supporter of the ZANU-PF…that is until last year.

Thomas (© Eric Beauchemin)

The militias came to my house and told me to evacuate, to leave the house immediately. That house they were giving it to an ex-war veteran again who wanted to occupy that house. He’s got a house in Bulawayo. He’s got a house in Lupane, but he wanted that house in Kamativi. I tried to plead with them. They couldn’t help me. So I give in because they had given me an ultimatum, about 20 that very day I was supposed to leave. 20 youths came to your house? Yeah. You are married and have children? I have 8 kids with me. So I had to leave with my kids and my wife. Did you have any money to leave? Did you have anything? I had not even a single cent on me.

Thomas fled a few kilometres down the road with only the clothes on his back, together with over half a dozen other families. Less than 5 months later, the youth militia appeared again.

At about 11 o’clock in the night, they came to see us, after their ZANU-PF rally at Mugoza. When they were on their way back, they dropped at our place. EB: How many militia were there? There were about 20 militia. EB: What happened? They hit doors open, all doors and we were dragged out, myself and my family. 7 or 8 families were taken out and rounded off on an open space and we were made to lie down. And they were hitting us at random. Everybody, even my wife. My wife has got a broken jaw, and children. Everybody was hit. EB: What was the atmosphere like? They were crying. Everybody was crying. I was crying. And I was…all the ribs I’ve got broken ribs here. And they told us to go out of those houses. And we went out of those houses that very night.

The youth militia also attacked and evicted 30-year-old Armstrong and his family that fateful night. They accused them of belonging to the opposition MDC.

They came to us and just forced us out, saying, you know, ‘we are here. We don’t want you here. You are occupying government houses. So get out of here. Go to Britain and get the houses, not here’. EB: Go to Britain? Yeah, that’s what they said. So it was unfortunate because I have never been to Britain actually and I am a Zimbabwean. But I don’t know why they say so. ‘They say you support opposition MDC so you have to go to Britain’. EB; How did they know you were an MDC supporter? I’m not too sure. For me they say I used to work in the tourism industry, so they say, you associate with white people so I’m not supposed to be in Kamativi. So I was out of that area.

The families spent the night around a bonfire and the next day took refuge in a nearby town. The persecution did not end there: a month later, the youth militia attacked these alleged MDC supporters again. They are now all on the run, dispersed throughout the country.

At the moment I don’t know what to do. Now I have no home. I have no clothes. They burnt my household. They burnt it with fire. EB: What’s going to happen in the future? I don’t know. I don’t know, I really don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen to my family. I can’t tell you at the moment. I haven’t yet joined bits and pieces.

I have nowhere because with my family now, my daughter has gone to three schools within six months. So it has been very difficult. And from here, I don’t know where I will be. EB: But you are not even an MDC activist. Do you know why they are doing this? Of course, I support MDC, for sure. But the thing is actually I don’t know why I am being followed like that. There are so many supporters, but it seems to me to be a bit unfair because wherever I go now, they follow me up. I haven’t rested since January to date. You can even see how I am now because I’m thinking too much. I don’t where to go. I’m told to go to England where I’ve never been before. So I don’t know what to do.

Disbelief is common among the youth militia victims. So too is fear and even terror.

I’m Ignatious Chaitezvi. I was employed by the Zimbabwe Republic Police from ’99 to 2002, in January.

Three months ago, Ignatious had to flee to South Africa. He and four of his colleagues had been assigned to guard the MDC offices in a town in central Zimbabwe. The intelligence service saw them and accused the five policemen of being MDC supporters. A few days later, they were forced to resign.

Ignatius (© Eric Beauchemin)

I was attacked by 5 members of the youth militias. They started assaulting me, accused me of selling them to the MDC. They say, ‘you know everything from government. So you are selling us to the MDC. We want to kill you’. They beat me. I couldn’t even retaliate. There were two police officers near the scene, my colleagues. They knew me. But they couldn’t help because they were even afraid of those guys because they control everything. So I don’t know how I escaped from them. I just ran. I found myself running away from them. When I was about to reach my home where I was staying, I was surprised to be hit on my neck by something, a stick. Then I fell down. Then they started beating me, beating me with the sjamboks and the sticks. EB: The youth militia again? The youth militias again. They followed. They knew my place so they got there before me.

They started assaulting me. I tried to turn. That’s when I was hit here by an axe. Hit in the eye with an axe. Yeah, yeah. You can see the mark here. I was hit by an axe. And you lost your eye. I lost my eye. You know, if I didn’t turn, they were going to kill me because they were aiming on the back of my skull. So I think for myself that it’s God who did that for me. Just to lose an eye, than to lose a life.

Ignatious spent five days in a hospital. He was given nothing more than aspirin to relieve the pain. As a suspected MDC member, he was lucky to get even that. Ignatious finally managed to reach his brother who’s a doctor on the other side of the country. When he recovered, he headed back to his home in the rural areas. He returned to the city in June 2003.

The same guys attacked me again. They said, ‘this time we want to kill you’. They had knives. So when they tried to pierce through my heart, I punched that knife and I got a cut here. EB: In your hand. In my hand. So I fought their leader, and when he was down I ran away. We were five of us who were dismissed from the force. My colleague, my best friend, is now crippled. His legs were amputated by the same type of guys, militias. EB: When you say they were amputated, did they cut them off? He was beaten and his legs were cut off. And the other one was killed. He was beaten to death. The two when they received threats, they ran away to UK. Fortunately their family was rich. They can afford a ticket to UK.

It is very distressing to see how things are going.

Pius Ncube is the archbishop of Buluwayo, Zimbabwe’s second biggest city.

Archbishop Pius Ncube
Archbishop Pius Ncube (© Eric Beauchemin)

The government is pretending the militia training is a national service, equating it to the national service programmes that we have in other countries. But we know that this is not the point. The government is politicising the young people, brainwashing them into party ideology of Mugabe.

Since the militia training has been made compulsory, what we’ve seen is that along with that, no one is allowed into tertiary training at this stage unless they’ve done their compulsory youth militia training, which effectively means that only people who have been indoctrinated with ZANU-PF policies can have access to universities, colleges, nurse training, teacher training or anything else which is government-subsidised in the country.

Three times an hour, every hour, this tune and slogan are broadcast on government-run radio, extolling President Mugabe’s Third Chimurenga. Officially, the Third Revolution has been about reclaiming Zimbabwe for the blacks. Thousands of white-owned commercial farmers have had their land occupied and confiscated. The land was supposed to have been turned over to poor landless peasants, but ZANU-PF officials claimed the best farms, and then let them lie fallow. Now, in Africa’s erstwhile bread-basket, over a third of Zimbabweans depend on international food aid. Late last month, President Mugabe even felt it necessary to publicly admonish party officials for seizing more than one farm. Among the people who occupied the farms were children and young people. Some of them were then recruited to join the youth militia. John, a 25-year-old youth militia defector, believed the youth militia was a logical step after participating in a farm invasion. One of the things he learned about at the youth militia camp was Zimbabwean history.

John, youth militia defector
John, youth militia defector (© Eric Beauchemin)

We learned that in the late 19th century, whites came into the country and robbed King Lobengula of his riches. The whites also seized land and they let wild animals roam so that they could start safari operations. When hunters came, the Zimbabwean government and the people did not benefit from the royalties. So we were taught that it was good for Zimbabweans to seize land from whites and to learn how to farm and irrigate because all the produce will go to the government-run Grain Marketing Board, the GMB. During droughts, the GMB will give food to hungry people, something the white safari lodges never do.

As with so much ZANU-PF propaganda, this rather curious version of Zimbabwean history mixes fact and fiction. The GMB, for instance, does give food to the hungry, as long as they support the ZANU-PF. According to human rights organisations, the youth militia and supporters of the ruling party systematically block MDC supporters from receiving food aid. For six months, John – along with 24-hundred other young people – were taught the virtues of the Third Chimurenga…the Third Revolution.

Graffiti in favour of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)
Graffiti in favour of the opposition MDC (© Eric Beauchemin)

We were told that those who didn’t join the Third Chimurenga were betraying the country. We Zimbabweans had to come together to fight the cause till the end. EB: What is the Third Chimurenga? Is it the seizure of land and throwing the whites out? I’m not quite sure. I don’t know what they had in mind. EB: What did you learn about the MDC? They just told us categorically that the MDC is bad. I think the youth militias are preparing for war against the MDC. EB: Did anyone contest or question what you were learning? We were told not to think. They would think for us. We were told we couldn’t do anything until we received orders from the top.

Youth militia members are between 10 and 30 years of age. Half are male and half are female. Besides political indoctrination, says Debbie, another former member, they also had rigorous physical training.

I wake up early in the morning, at half past 3. We had to run 20 kilometres. After that, we’d have to sing the national anthem. And they taught us slogans about Robert Mugabe. We also had to do 200 press-ups every morning. If you couldn’t, you were beaten by the commanders. We had to sleep in a hall, 1000 of us, boys and girls together. The rest slept outside. The boys and commanders constantly raped the girls. I was raped every night. If you cried, you were beaten. I went to the desk commander at the camp, Peter Nyoni, to complain about the raping, but he beat me too.

It makes me very, very angry.

Archbishop Pius.

Because these abuses have been reported, yet the government has done nothing about it for the last 1.5 years. And these ministers are absolute hypocrites, Mugabe included, because none of their relatives and daughters are put in these camps. I have heard that some of the girls have found themselves engaging in abortion because they had these unwanted pregnancies and they couldn’t say no to their superiors, to the authorities, who were training them in these camps. It’s deliberately being done. It just shows how evil Mugabe’s regime is, including the ministers, his ministers and cronies, how they are destroying the lives of these young people, for their own interests, just to keep in power.

Debbie spent seven months in the youth militia camp. The stories she tells about the beatings, murders, thefts, and constant rapes are chilling. Debbie emerged from the camp pregnant. She was not alone. Many of the girls and young women get sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. In Zimbabwe, a third of the population carries the virus. The figures in the youth militia camps are probably even higher.

The doctor says you must have a blood test. He tests me. He tells me I’m positive. EB: Debbie, what do you think about all this? Every time, I cry. I think about to die. EB: What do you think about these people who did this? I think they should be punished, but they won’t arrest these people. I reported what happened to me to the police. But Peter Nyoni just bribed the policeman. EB: What do you think should happen to these people because of what they did to you?

Debbie couldn’t speak any more. She cried silently for minutes. Debbie has named the names of some of the men who raped her, and she has talked publicly about the abuse she underwent and the crimes she witnessed. In today’s Zimbabwe, people are killed for much less. This shy yet plucky young woman had to flee her country. Her only joy now is to be with her chubby 11-month-old daughter. In six months, Debbie will know whether or not her child also carries the virus.

Right from the beginning, it has been a military training. And it has involved teaching people to march like soldiers, and it has involved weapons training. The government has vociferously denied that until very recently. They’ve said it’s not a military training and it’s about skills. However in July of this year, 2003, Minister Sekeramayi, who is the minister of defence, finally acknowledged that the Ministry of Defence had a pivotal interest in the youth militia training and that he considered the youth militia should be a reserve force for the defence of the country and that weaponry training should be a compulsory part of all militia training. And this is of particular concern taken together with the policy of the government which clearly and on several occasions has stated that the militia training is aimed at all people between the ages of 10 and 30. This in effect means that the government is training child soldiers. That’s exactly what it means.

John, the militia defector, speaks of months of ill-treatment with the youth militia. The last two months of the six-month training were particularly bad because there wasn’t enough food at the centre. Some of the children and young people were able to get food from their parents. They had to drop it off at the gates and were prohibited from entering the camp. According to the commanders, the food shortages were designed to teach survival skills to the youth militia, more commonly known as Green Bombers because of their green uniforms. The training did make them tough, says John. By the time they were ready to carry out “operations”, they were very angry young people.

We had a very negative view of everything. We were violent. If we went to a store and saw people buying things, we would get angry. We would just go in, slam the door shut and take things. That was the spirit that had been instilled in us during the training. EB: What was it that made you violent because you were simply being taught things, but that didn’t mean that you were supposed to use violence. We wanted to take revenge because we had been treated so badly in the camp. Whenever we had a smile on our face there, we’d be punished and tortured. When we finished our training, we were unhappy. We wanted to vent our anger on the people, particularly those who were powerless.

They say that that the youth service should particularly target single mothers, girls, street kids and orphans, and while on the face of it, this sounds very appropriate and a very kind thing to do because these are the very parts of society who are most disadvantaged and poorest. They are also the ones who have the least defence and the ones who don’t have relatives, don’t have families, don’t have people who are going to complain when they are brutalised in the camps. Certainly of the youth militia who’ve reported to us were actually kidnapped into the camps in the first instance, and they were precisely those sorts of people, young girls selling vegetables on the side of the road, street kids, and AIDS orphans, and these people were co-opted into the training and they didn’t have anyone to speak up on their behalf. Quite a few of the militia have spoken of the enormous power that comes with the green uniform, with being a Green Bomber, that you can do anything you want. And while afterwards you may not feel good about some of the things that you have done, power has its own compulsion.

Because of the suffering they endured and the political indoctrination, the youth militia felt they could do anything. Alcohol and drugs reinforced the Green Bombers’ feeling of superiority.

We got high on alcohol and dagaa or marijuana before our attacks. We got the money from the lootings we carried out. EB: Would everyone drink alcohol or take daggaa? Most of us would smoke and drink. One or two guys didn’t, but since everybody was doing it, it was difficult for them not to get involved in these violent activities. They had to do the same if they didn’t want to become victims themselves. EB: So you would start in the morning and you would go on all day long smoking and drinking? Usually we would drink and smoke in the evening. But we would go out into the community during the day to get information. We would meet with people who were friendly. They’d become informers. They’d tell you that so-and-so is talking badly about the youth militia, and then you’d just be forced to go and attack those people. But at times we would even carry out attacks when we were sober. You would just got into the habit.

Wounds caused by a beating by the youth militia
Wounds caused by a beating by the youth militia (© Eric Beauchemin)

We always went out in groups. People feared us. That was clear from the way they reacted to us. Even if we beat people up, and they called the police, we knew what would happen. The police would take us aside, and we would tell them what the problem was about. The police would tell us to change our statement, to say that we had been provoked. And then they would encourage us to beat the people up even more. We were ZANU-PF’s armed wing. EB: So did this mean that as time went by you became more and more fearless, and you became more and more violent? Yeah. Our source of power was the encouragement we were getting, particularly from the police and the other authorities. We realised that we were free to do whatever we wanted and nobody was going to question us.

The impunity with which the youth militia operate was underscored in late July 2003, when the youths in Kamativi – the country’s biggest militia camp – besieged the local police station. The youths were angry at the police for arresting the camp commander, Black Jesus.

That’s when all these youth started running and blocking the roads and they went into the police and cut the rope of the Zimbabwe flag. These children were blocking the roads and making all these problems, shouting and saying that ‘the police are now deserting us. We thought you are with us. And we’ve been sent to do this by the president and we’re doing this because the president told us that we have to do this’.

The siege lasted for several hours, until reinforcements and riot police arrived from neighbouring cities. The Kamativi police knew the arrest of Black Jesus could result in trouble, but they had no choice: the youth militia were undermining their authority. Local residents had filed too many complaints about Black Jesus.

Poster for MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai
Poster for MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai (© Eric Beauchemin)

When they arrested this guy, this youth came and said you are not going anywhere with the Black Jesus. He is our king. He is our Jesus. He’s been sent to do the work. Policemen you mustn’t do this, you are MDC. So it’s like, I think, they knew that the police at Kamativi couldn’t arrest him. EB: Do the militia members think that anyone is controlling Black Jesus? They don’t think so. Policemen, they were saying that they think Black Jesus get all the instructions from the president.

It’s hard to determine the precise links between the youth militias and President Robert Mugabe. But the Archbishop of Bulawayo has heard too many stories to have any doubts about the true nature of the compulsory National Youth Service Training programme.

We understand that more than 50,000 have been trained so far. They must drill their ideology into these young people so that these young people become kind of like robots. They become unquestioning and very dogmatic. As soon as their name is mentioned, people really tremble. So there’s nothing good in those youngsters.

These people? They are very, very cruel. And I wish somebody greater than myself would crush them. That’s all I think because we can’t fight Mugabe. That’s the truth about it.

Already some human rights workers are thinking about how to reverse the damage that is being inflicted on this generation of young people. Zimbabwe has been through several cycles of civil disturbance since the 1970’s. The country’s pressing economic problems have always taken priority over psychological and social re-integration. But Zimbabwe simply cannot afford to ignore the legacy of the youth militia.

The social fabric is going to be in ruins at the end of this. Unfortunately the youth militia have often tortured in the very communities in which they were raised. And how do we re-integrate them? People are not going to value counselling, they are not going to think it’s worth the time of day because they’ve got to collect firewood, they’ve got to herd the cattle. There are all of these things and they can’t afford the time to sit and talk to somebody. That doesn’t seem very useful to them. So the important thing is going to be to find ways of integrating, of rebuilding families and communities in a way that they perceive to be useful and at the same time to actually be psychologically rehabilitating some of these youths and families which have been devastated by three years of violence in their communities.

“On the rampage” was produced by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.