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Page last updated at 09:19 GMT, Friday, 20 June 2008 10:19 UK

Eyewitness: Raped for opposing Mugabe

Ruling party supporters in rural Zimbabwe

By Poterai Bakwa
Mashonaland West province, Zimbabwe

Twenty three-year-old Zimbabwean Maidei [not her real name] struggled to talk about her ordeal at the hands of Zimbabwe's ruling party youths who were keeping her captive.

Nearby the Zanu-PF base in rural Mashonaland West province, she told me about how she had been raped and abused for two weeks.

It was against my will and he did not use any protection
Maidei

"I was taken hostage by Zanu-PF youths who are being led by a major and war veteran," she said.

"One of them said I had to renounce my allegiance to opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

"I had to give in to his demands as he said I could be beaten.

"It was against my will and he did not use any protection."

Our interview was made possible at the shopping centre near the base by a well-known businessman with connections to the ruling party in the area.

He had been providing the militia with beer and had met Maidei when she had been sent to the shops to collect it.

When we arrived with three crates of beer, Maidei was again despatched to fetch it.

As she quietly told us her story, she nervously kept an eye out for her abusers.

She said she was not able to make a bid to escape as the men knew where her family lived - about three kilometres from the base.

Zanu-PF heartland

Before the first round of the election in March, Maidei, like many other young people fed up with Zimbabwe's economic crisis, was not afraid to make her support for the opposition known.

A woman looks after two children in a makeshift open-air camp in Zimbabwe
An estimated 25,000 people have been displaced in post-poll violence

In Mashonaland West, President Robert Mugabe's home province, the MDC made inroads into the Zanu-PF heartland, snatching five parliamentary seats from the ruling party.

In the weeks after the election, Zanu-PF bases mushroomed across the province, where opposition sympathisers were targeted for "re-education".

On 13 April, Tapiwa Mugwandarikwa was stabbed to death in the province by suspected ruling party supporters - one of the first of an estimated 70 opposition members to be murdered in the post-poll violence countrywide.

Travelling in the area was dangerous. At business centres along the road - every 20km or so - we were searched and needed clearance to continue.

Fortunately my contact smoothed the path and we occasionally gave money for the young men to buy beer.

Rural victims

As the country heads for a second round of a presidential election on 27 June, the MDC says Maidei's case is not unique.

MDC Information Director Luke Tambironyoka says more than 500 women and girls have been sexually abused and raped in the political violence gripping the country.

A ruling party rally in Shamva, Zimbabwe
The ruling party has been campaigning vigorously across the country

"We are still yet to establish the exact figure as some cases are still yet to be reported officially," he says.

"Furthermore, the majority of the victims are in the outlying remote rural areas, where they are in hiding fearing for their lives."

According to Maidei, the abuse tends to happen at night-time vigils, called "pungwes".

These are gatherings held in the open where people are forced to sing revolutionary songs to prove their loyalty to the ruling party.

Many residents in the area are made to attend, including girls as young as 16 where, if they catch a commander's eye, they are kept at the base until the militia leave the area.

Maidei said she was more vulnerable in such a situation as she was a widow - her husband died of TB three years ago, leaving her with two children.

A local Zanu-PF official explained to me that the pungwes, used during the war of independence, were still necessary as "political re-orientation" exercises to warn people "against the opposition which is backed by the West".

Asked about the allegations that men were raping women and girls forcibly at the meetings, he replied matter-of-factly: "We have to share in comradeship as we have the same aim to get rid of the opposition here."

He confirmed that the young and beautiful women were often identified at the meetings and made to stay on with the group leaders.

Surprise

His reply glossed over the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV/Aids which has wreaked havoc in Zimbabwe.

Life expectancy has plunged to 37 years from 60 years in 1990, largely due to the HIV/Aids pandemic.

According to a male nurse based in Chinyoi, many of the feared war veterans active in the area during the 2000 elections have died as a result of the virus.

"In Mashonaland West, a notorious gang of war veterans has lost its five main leaders to HIV and Aids-related illness as they raped women during their reign of terror then," said the nurse, who asked not to be named.

A child rights activist, who asked not to be named, says the scale of the rape and abuse in the last few months has taken aid workers by surprise.

The run-up to the March vote was relatively peaceful, with the MDC being able to campaign in rural areas.

I am living in fear
Maidei
"We have been caught unaware by this political crisis where women and girls are being abused and raped in the areas the ruling party has sealed off," she says.

"These abuses should leave politicians hanging their heads in shame for not assisting their own mothers and sisters as is the norm in African culture."

The Zanu-PF bases which operated for about six to eight weeks in Mashonaland West have now been dismantled, as urban areas become their focus.

Whilst captive, Maidei said that she felt her parents were safe from attack.

Asked whether she would report the rapes when released, she said it would depend on the political landscape after the elections.

"I am living in fear," she said.

The reporter's name has been changed for his own protection


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