JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (WOMENSENEWS)--When they came knocking, she thought they were thieves. But the soldiers who pushed through her door with guns, batons and ropes were there to take her dignity, not her property.
They told her she was a prostitute; the girlfriend of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Then they stuck a gun inside her and forced her to make noises as if she was having sex with a man. It was punishment, they said for her political activities.
Patricia, an activist with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe, who asked that only her first name be used, is one of only a handful of Zimbabwean women who have come to the press with their stories. Most foreign journalists have been refused entry for more than a year and human-rights workers are harassed into silence or exile. But in the days after her ordeal earlier this year, Patricia told her story to the BBC in hopes of bringing attention to the crisis in her country.
"I am afraid of meeting them again. I don't know what they will do," she said. "They have already killed me. I have to carry on. I just want revenge."
Sex Assault as Political Weapon
Rights groups say sexual assault is increasingly being used as a political weapon by the Zimbabwean government, engaged in a nearly three-year campaign of terror against political opponents. More than 200 people have died and thousands more beaten and tortured since the Movement for Democratic Change first challenged President Robert Mugabe's party in June 2000 elections.
Tony Reeler, regional human-rights activist for the Pretoria-based Institute for Democracy in South Africa and former director of Amani Trust, the now-banned Zimbabwean human-rights group, reports that evidence exists indicating that sexual assault in Zimbabwe is taking three forms: One is the rape of women such as Patricia, who are being punished for their political activities; another is random rape, which is being encouraged by the general breakdown of civil law; the third, and most widespread form, according to Reeler, is the concubinage of young women in youth militia camps.
"There is considerable evidence in Zimbabwe that young women have been forced into these militia bases to adopt a domestic role, cooking and cleaning and also taking care of their (militia members') sexual needs," said Reeler. "But it's an extremely difficult thing to track given that even in stable times women tend, on average, not to report rape."
Counting the number of victims of sexual assault in Zimbabwe is nearly impossible since the normal reticence of rape victims to speak about their ordeals is compounded by a general fear of speaking out against an increasingly brutal regime.
Nor is there anyone tracking the problem. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change closely monitors other forms of political violence, but few rapes are reported to it. Nevertheless, Reeler says the anecdotal evidence points to a high and rising rate.
"I think the indications that rape has become extremely high are very, very, very plausible," he says.
'They Are Using Rape to Get to Us'
"It is as if we are at war and they are using rape to get to us," says Janah Ncube, chair of the Harare-based Zimbabwean Women's Coalition. She spoke at the Johannesburg release of a report by the Solidarity Peace Trust, a coalition of Zimbabwean and South African church leaders, about recent increases in human-rights violations in Zimbabwe. "They are trying to rob us of our dignity."
In Johannesburg, a group of young Zimbabwean men walk the streets of a rundown neighborhood, scrounging for food and sleeping in parks. They are refugees, they say, fleeing their country's political turmoil.
But there is little sympathy for them here among South Africa's large Zimbabwean expatriate community. Zimbabweans living in South Africa say that when the newcomers were at home they were the perpetrators, members of the country's notorious National Youth Service, nicknamed the "Green Bombers" for the color of their uniforms and brutality of their behavior.
Teen-aged Militia Source of Most Violence
Most of the Green Bombers are just teen-agers themselves, or young men in their 20s, many of whom say they were lured into the organization with promises of jobs or to ward off threats against their families.
Women's and human-rights' activists say the youth militia, blamed for much of the violence that has gripped Zimbabwe in recent years, is also responsible for the bulk of the country's politically tied sexual assaults.
Twenty-two year old Luscious, who spoke on condition that his last name not be used, is one of about 20 known Green Bombers now taking refuge in South Africa. A thin young man with a weathered face, he says he spent more than a year in the militia, beating, torturing and burning the houses of opposition supporters. Stuttering heavily, he says he didn't participate in any sexual assaults.
But he watched, drunk and high on drugs, while women and in one case, children, were raped. He and others say the substances clouded their reason and they did not know what they were doing. When he realized what he was becoming, he says, he left for South Africa.
Another former Green Bomber, and a friend of Luscious, says he joined the youth militia on the advice of his father, who thought Henry's membership in the group would protect his daughters. Now the young man, Henry, is worried that his sisters will suffer for his flight.
"I don't know what will happen to them, but I worry they will be punished because I ran away," he says.
Nicole Itano is a free-lance writer based in Johannesburg.
For more information:
BBC News--"Eyewitness: Zimbabwe torture victim":
Human Rights Watch: Africa--Zimbabwe: