In the last two years, Zimbabwe has seen a new national youth service training programme moving rapidly from a supposedly voluntary, small scale training that allegedly aimed at skills enhancement, patriotism and moral education, to what is now intended to be a compulsory, large scale, paramilitary training.
The need for national service has to date never been formally debated in Parliament and there is no legislation controlling its implementation. Yet the youth militia training is now referred to by government as compulsory. Furthermore, the government is already implementing a policy that denies school leavers access to tertiary training facilities and civil service posts, including teaching and nursing, without proof of having completed the national service training.
This report reviews information on youth militia policies and activities from their conception in 2000, to their deployment in December 2001, and up to the present. Sources include both state controlled and independent media reports, training material from the camps, interviews with those tortured by the militia, and interviews with militia themselves. Further sources include human rights reports by Amnesty International, London, Physicians for Human Rights, Denmark, and Zimbabwean human rights organisations.
Early government policy documents focussed on the need to provide the nation’s youth, referred to as those aged between 10 and 30 years of age, with a sense of national pride and history, as well as skills suitable for employment. However, contrary to early claims that the youth militia training would not be politically partisan, there is overwhelming evidence that the youth militia camps are aimed at forcing on all school leavers a ZANU-PF view of Zimbabwean history and the present. All training materials in the camps have, from inception, consisted exclusively of ZANU-PF campaign materials and political speeches. This material is crudely racist and vilifies the major opposition party in the country, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Furthermore, in contradiction of claims that the training would not aim at imparting military skills, military drills including weapons training are shown to have been major elements of youth training since the first youth intakes during 2001. The government itself has finally in July 2003, acknowledged its hitherto denied policy of weapons training for all trainees in the compulsory service, with the national army announcing itself as a concerned party in the training. The Minister of Defence has announced that youth service should be compulsory, should involve weapons training, and that all youth should form a reserve force to defend their nation, falling under military command.
Government rhetoric states that the youth militia must defend the nation against imperialists and neo-colonialists. Combined with government rhetoric that we have enemies within, including the neo-colonialist and imperialist opposition party, the MDC, it would appear that the youth militia are intended to “defend” the nation against a legal and widely supported political opposition. Certainly, those believed to be MDC supporters, have been the most common targets of youth militia attacks.
The youth militia have, since January 2002, become one of the most commonly reported violators of human rights, with accusations against them including murder, torture, rape and destruction of property. 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. This role of the youth militia has been documented in relation to the Presidential Election, the Rural District Council Elections, parliamentary by-elections, and most recently in the Urban Council Elections.
Other activities documented in this report, include the role played at times by youth militia in politicisation of government food distribution through the control of Grain Marketing Board (GMB) sales. Youth militia have also been implicated in denial of access to health care on politically partisan grounds, and in destruction of independent newspapers. Accounts of youth militia being implicated in theft, vandalism and usurping the powers of law enforcing agencies are multiple.
The militia have an ambivalent relationship with law enforcing agencies including the army and police. On the whole, the youth militia have impunity, often working under the direction of war veterans and alongside government agencies in their illegal activities. They are seldom arrested or prevented from breaking the law. However, there are a few cases on record of the youth militia attacking police or army, and being attacked or arrested in return. The courts have also at times condemned their activities and passed judgement against them.
Apart from having committed crimes against their fellow Zimbabweans, including family and neighbours, the youth militia have themselves become victims of human rights abuses in the course of their training. In terms of international law, to train anyone militarily under the age of 18 years, is to create a child soldier. Government policy has on several occasions indicated the catchment for militia training as being those between 10 and 30 years old. While an overall record of the numbers and ages of youth trained is not publicly available, ad hoc information confirms that children as young as 11 years of age have been through the militia training.
Conditions in the training camps are confirmed to be severe; particularly in the first year of implementation, rampant sexual activity among youth militia themselves was widely reported. Female youth militia have reported rape on a systematic basis in some camps, involving girls as young as 11 years of age. Youth militia pregnancies, and sexually transmitted infections including HIV, have been reported as resulting from youth militia training experiences from a variety of sources in the last two years. Camp instructors are commonly implicated as among the rapists.
While some youth who have been through the militia training are reported to be well satisfied with their experiences, others have fled the camps and even the nation in order to escape. Some youth militia show signs of severe depression and guilt as a result of what they have seen and done.
The implications of the current youth militia training for Zimbabwe are serious indeed. The legitimacy of providing politically partisan and military training to tens of thousands of youths every year must be questioned. Against which enemy is this enormous “reserve force” of teenagers to be deployed? To date their targets have been their fellow Zimbabwean citizens, particularly those perceived to support the MDC. The social fabric has been deliberately destroyed through encouraging part of the nation’s youth to commit terrible crimes against their fellow citizens with impunity. Even if youth militia training were to stop tomorrow, it would leave Zimbabwe with a tough legacy. Our youths have been turned into vandals and have become a lost generation in the process. The task of reintegrating youth militia into the very communities they have victimised is as necessary as it is daunting.