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Some kept as sex slaves in Zimbabwe

The Baltimore Sun

HARARE, Zimbabwe - She has to call the young men her "comrades." She cooks food for the comrades and serves them. She sweeps the comrades' floor and cleans up after them.

And whenever any of the comrades wants sex, she is raped.

Asiatu, 21, is a prisoner of the comrades at a command base of the ruling ZANU-PF, one of 900 set up by the party to terrorize Zimbabweans into voting Robert G. Mugabe back into power in the one-man presidential runoff election late last month.

The election is over, but the terror isn't.

"I'm still at the base. I'm being raped by four or five men daily," she whispers, bursting into tears. "Any time they want, night or day.

"To me a comrade is a murderer, someone who's cruel."

She has been at the base for about 10 weeks, ever since she was abducted in the middle of the night because her mother is a supporter of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

She has to stay most of each day and night at the base, a sex slave of the thuggish youth militias unleashed by the government. The Times interviewed her during one of the several short daily periods she is allowed to leave the base.

When asked why she doesn't escape during her free time, she gives a chilling explanation: "They promised me if I run away, my mother will be killed." A slight, pretty figure, about 5 feet tall, Asiatu wears a flowing black dress with splashes of red. Her braids are tied back by an extravagant puff of red tulle. Her eyes are sad and fearful. And she rarely smiles.

She says she looked forward to the June 27 runoff and the result, assuming she would be freed.

But with the election over and no sign to the end of her imprisonment, she has lost hope. She is fearful she may be pregnant, and terrified she has AIDS. She is the sole breadwinner in her family, but has not been able to sell vegetables because she spends all her time at the base.

"I pray God most of the time. I pray, 'You are the one who knows my future. Help me. Stop this happening to me.' " A base commander who spoke to the Times on condition of anonymity said that Mugabe said the bases will continue to operate. Some in the ruling party say new operations are being planned. But the commander said there was no government money to feed the youth militias at the bases and that supporting them had become a major problem.

That could be a problem for ZANU-PF: For most of the young shock troops, their main motivation is the hope of a quick dollar to feed their families, with food scarce and opportunities to get ahead almost nonexistent.

The camps were set up after ZANU-PF's defeat in the March 29 parliamentary and presidential elections to beat opposition supporters, and provide a base from which to burn houses, displace people and beat, maim or kill opposition activists.

In most of the bases across the country, young women have been forced to cook for ZANU-PF youth militias, serve them and be their sex slaves, according to young women and men forced to attend the camps daily.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew from the June 27 poll because of the violence. But Mugabe, who finished second to Tsvangirai in the March poll, pushed ahead with the runoff despite international condemnation. He was declared the winner soon afterward and hastily inaugurated.

Asiatu has given up believing in the possibility of her own freedom, yet she has not lost her belief that the country will somehow be transformed.

"If the situation continues like this, the country will remain ashes," she says.

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