As Zimbabwe’s political and economic crisis deepens, victims of President Robert Mugabe’s violent regime are fleeing for their lives.
This World speaks to Washington, a young man who fled Zimbabwe after being reluctantly drafted into the country’s notorious secret police.
The first suggestion that something was wrong came at night. Washington, lying awake in his bed, could hear screams and sobs coming from the girls’ dormitories.
The next morning his fears were heightened when he saw bite marks on the necks of some of his male counterparts in the camp. When Washington challenged one of them, he was told that rape was “part of the training”.
Washington did not believe it. But then he claims he was forced to do it himself.
Controversial training camps
Washington’s horror story began a year and a half ago.
He says all he wanted was a career. Aged 20, he enrolled in one of Zimbabwe’s National Youth Service Training Camps. A friend of his had told him that a certificate from one of these camps was like a rubber stamp for a university place. It would open doors.
It all seemed perfectly innocent, in keeping with the government’s line that the youth camps existed to combat unemployment and give a bored youth something to do.
Washington had not yet heard the stories which have seeped out of Zimbabwe, stories suggesting that rape is a common feature of life in the camps, that they exist to indoctrinate the youth with pro-Mugabe propaganda, and that torture techniques are part of the syllabus.
But soon he would have his own story to tell.
Beaten to death
Everything changed the night he was plied with alcohol and marijuana, and presented with a woman who had broken rules and was “supposed” to sleep with him. Washington sobs as he explains that, along with a handful of other recruits, he had sex with her.
During the night, as he sobered up, the horror of what he had done struck him. He realised he had to run away.
When dawn came, as he tiptoed out of his dormitory, he bumped into his best friend Gideon, who had also been forced to rape the night before. They fled together.
Within minutes they were caught and dragged back to the camp.
All the students were woken to watch the spectacle of the runaways being beaten. Washington apologised immediately and suffered only a dozen lashes with a stick.
Gideon refused to apologise, instead condemning the camp and its instructors as barbaric and inhuman. Washington watched as his best friend was beaten to death.
Zimbabwe’s secret police
After this, always mindful of the fact that running away meant being killed, Washington says he was singled out for his intelligence and drafted into a special training programme for Zimbabwe’s secret police – the Central Intelligence Organisation, or CIO.
“It seems that indiscipline and intelligence go hand in hand, young man,” he was told. “From now on, you are going to be treated differently.”
Over the course of the next year, he claims he was shown how to torture using batons, electric wires, pliers and screwdrivers.
The people who this ‘training’ was carried out on ranged from alleged rapists, to political prisoners and even one man who stole cattle.
‘”I was told to beat him on the feet. I could not do it. Then he took a bottle of gin from the corner. He asked me to drink, but I couldn’t. He slapped me across the face. I drank it and we started smoking marijuana. I don’t know what happened after that but I beat him. At first the man was crying, then he passed out and soiled himself. His feet were black.”
Washington also says he was shown secret prisons across the country. One was in a car park.
“There was a metal door in the wall, locked by an electronic lock” Washington said.
Inside, held in filthy conditions, were a variety of prisoners, including one white man Washington says was suspected of being a CIA spy.
In another part of his training he says he was shown how to use weapons, and was made to carry out missions to discredit political opposition.
On one such mission, Washington says he and his fellow trainees were given T-shirts bearing the logo of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Zimbabwe’s vocal opposition. They were then made to attend an MDC rally, where they beat various supporters. The operation was designed to sow discord in the MDC, and present it as a fractious party.
The final straw came when he was instructed to kill someone.
Washington begins to tell a horrific story, of a man in a trunk who was beaten so badly he could barely talk; of the cement Washington had to fill the trunk with; of the lake that the trunk, the cement, and the man were meant to be dropped in.
Washington says the man was trying to talk to him. He kept on saying “help me my son, help me!”.
“We cannot do this” I said. But one of my colleagues told me to look over my shoulder. I did, there was a man watching us.
The man was a minder who had followed to make sure that the job was done. At this stage Washington stops. He cannot finish this story, he is crying too hard.
Despite the numerous threats he had received, Washington explains that he fled as soon as he could. The words of his CIO instructors echoed in his head: “If you try to run away, whatever country you go to, we can get you.”
In Namibia, as he sobs his way through his story, it is clear that Washington believes the CIO are hunting him: “They can get you wherever you go,” he says.
Because of the difficulty of reporting from Zimbabwe, some of Washington’s story cannot be verified.
He may have evaded capture so far. He may even be able to hide from the Zimbabwean CIO until Robert Mugabe is gone, but he will never stop running from his conscience.