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Rape as an Election Strategy; Bearing Witness in Zimbabwe: AIDS-Free World’s Work with Women Victims of Military Rape

AIDS Free World

I screamed, but no one came to help. There were four men… They were beating me, and I fell down and hit my head on the floor. Then one of them hit me in the mouth with his fist. They knocked out my front teeth. It hurt very much. They spoke to each other about who should be the first to rape me. One of them said, “Go first, comrade…” I was out of my mind by then.

Patience contracted HIV from the rape. Frightened for her life, she fled Zimbabwe for South Africa, where she works as a babysitter and longs for her own child, who is with family in Zimbabwe.

Patience is one of the women AIDS-Free World met recently. Her story, heartbreaking though it is, is tragically typical. Soldiers banged the head of one woman’s toddler into the wall. He died of his injuries. One woman was forced to lie on top of her dying husband’s body while she was being raped. Another woman was raped while her small daughter, the child of a previous rape, watched. She got pregnant from this second rape as well, and her second child is HIV-positive. It goes on and on and sickeningly on.

The men seized the women, raped them, beat them, made them cook and clean and cower, and then sent them home to spread a message of terror and intimidation.

In July 2008, a leading human rights group in Zimbabwe working with women and girls appealed to AIDS-Free World for help. AIDS-Free World’s legal team, with the help of pro bono lawyers from DLA Piper, set out to document evidence of a well-orchestrated, politically motivated campaign of rape and sexual violence directed at women and girls associated with, or believed to be associated with, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), then the opposition party in Zimbabwe whose followers threatened to unseat President Robert Mugabe.

Interviews with survivors ranged in length from three to six hours each, were conducted by lawyers and videotaped, and are ultimately memorialized in sworn affidavits signed by the affiants and certified by a commissioner of oaths. To date, AIDS-Free World has completed 53 interviews.

In the course of the investigation, the lawyers heard stories almost too horrifying to comprehend, and met courageous women with heartbreaking burdens -- ostracism, unwanted pregnancies, wounds that don’t heal, and ongoing psychological trauma. They also uncovered clear patterns among the stories.

The rapes and sexual violence that AIDS-Free World documented occurred from September of 2007 through August of 2008, with a surge in violence before the June 27th election. The attacks occurred in all eight provinces of Zimbabwe, suggesting a widespread campaign. The accounts were graphic, highly detailed, credible and consistent in a number of ways.  The women were all supporters of the MDC, and the rapists were militia members or supporters of ZANU-PF, Robert Mugabe’s ruling party. (The two parties now have an uneasy power-sharing agreement.)

In every case, the attack was well organized.  Rapists identified individual women, often on the basis of prepared lists, and often arrested them in their homes.  Many women were forcibly marched to militia bases established for the purposes of raping and torturing opposition supporters.  Many of the women were forcibly confined at bases and abused over several days; some were required to cook and clean for their captors. 

Several of the women witnessed the rapes and beatings of other women confined at ZANU-PF bases. Some were stripped naked and paraded in public. The women were beaten with sharpened sticks or logs on their buttocks, lower backs and the soles of their feet. Several victims were burned, cut, whipped and left to die; some were beaten so violently that they lapsed into unconsciousness during their ordeals.  The perpetrators made no attempt to hide their faces or identities and some called each other by name before, during and after the assaults.

The lasting physical damage associated with the gang rapes is profound. Several of the women have suffered internal bleeding. Some of the victims were hospitalized for weeks on end. Compounding the trauma of their attacks, several women have tested HIV-positive in the months after being gang-raped; many of the others are afraid they were infected and their status remains uncertain. One woman was raped so violently that her uterus is permanently damaged and she will not be able to bear children. Several women became pregnant as a result of the rapes. Many continue to experience nightmares in addition to their physical injuries. A number of victims admitted to feeling “dead” or suicidal in the aftermath of their ordeal, and at least one woman actually tried to commit suicide.

Most victims were abducted and taken to ZANU-PF bases or to the forest or the bush, where they were raped, sexually assaulted and tortured, usually by a group of men. The other women were raped in their homes. More than half of the victims were raped by multiple men, sometimes as many as 10 and up to 18 men, often over more than one day and in one case over a period of five days. Most of the victims were told to relinquish their allegiance to the MDC and/or were informed that they were subject to assault or would be “fixed” because of their membership in the MDC. Several of the victims were accused of wanting to sell or give their country to white people.

Many of the women were forced to attend ZANU-PF rallies or compelled to sing ZANU-PF songs and recite ZANU-PF slogans.  One victim was abducted and interrogated by police about her political affiliations.  Another victim was gang-raped by a mob in early July after admitting that she had voted for the MDC on June 27th.

In almost every instance, the women were unable to successfully report their attacks to the police. More than one woman tried to report the rape and was told that authorities would allow her to open a file for the beating but not the rape. Several were told that the police could not get involved because the crimes were “political.” In some cases, sympathetic police officers told the women they were barred from recording incidents of ZANU-PF violence. No perpetrators have been investigated or arrested for their participation in the sexual violence. In several cases, victims continue to live in the same communities as their attackers, and are forced to see them every day.

Without the police report required by Zimbabwe law, survivors could not gain admission to public hospitals for rape treatment or post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV. For those who have or may test HIV-positive, their access to antiretroviral drugs is threatened.

In the aftermath of these attacks, these women’s lives are permanently changed. Husbands, fathers, and other family members have been killed. The stigma around rape and sexual violence is pervasive, preventing many of them from speaking about what happened to them. Many have been rejected by their husbands, in-laws, or the larger community because they were raped. Those still living in Zimbabwe live in constant fear for their safety, and many continue to receive threats from their perpetrators.

Like Patience, many have fled to neighboring countries. Some were forced to leave children behind. They have no family, no money, no medical care, no counseling, and very little hope for rebuilding their lives or obtaining justice. It is difficult to imagine the horrible choice they face: remaining behind terrified and insecure, but in familiar surroundings with familiar people -- or leaving and going to a hostile country where they are invisible, unwanted and often alone. How bad does home have to be before you choose to leave the places and people you love for a strange and unfriendly land?

Every woman who testified wants accountability and justice -- not revenge, but simple justice. Many knew and named their attackers. But what they want most is assurance that if someone tears a woman apart, he will not get away without paying for it.

After AIDS-Free World finishes the documentation, and collects more evidence about the perpetrators, they will explore avenues such as the International Criminal Court. They are working towards UN and African involvement both in bringing attention to the issue, and in ending the climate of impunity that aids and abets campaigns of sexual violence wherever they occur.

Mercy, another survivor, ended her testimony starkly:

The rape has changed my life forever. I am no longer happy. I am separated from my children. I do not know where my husband is, and I am afraid to return to Zimbabwe.