‘I was in a Zimbabwe death squad’

Working closely with the Central Intelligence Organisation’s (CIO) directorate of counter-intelligence, Zanu-PF has been setting up secret death squads comprising members of the National Youth Service training programme.

The squads petrol bomb political opponents’ homes, commit acts of sabotage and torture opponents to President Robert Mugabe’s regime, a former member of one such death squad said this week.

John Gweru (22)*, who joined the National Youth Service in late 2005 out of desperation, related graphic and often stomach-turning details of secret prisons and torture camps, systematic rapes at the Bindura farm training camp and secret jails across the country.

In a voluntary written statement to the Mail & Guardian running to more than 50 pages and several hours of videotaped evidence given to human rights activists, Gweru painted a picture of a regime that has descended to thuggish depravity in its attempt to hang on to power.

Gweru fled Zimbabwe early this year after he could no longer stomach “the work” and eventually found his way to Namibia, where he took shelter with other Zimbabweans in the small coastal town of Lüderitz.

But a week ago, someone, who he later realised was his former handler at the CIO, began following and photographing him. Gweru realised his life was at risk when the shack he was living in was broken into and a satchel containing evidence of the CIO’s spying activities on Western ambassadors and Zimbabwean ministers was stolen.

Gweru had taken the documents from Lands and Security Minister Didymus Mutasa’s house because he wanted evidence of the intelligence organisation’s activity. These included reports on spying activities at the British Council and the United States embassy in Harare, he said.

He then contacted the M&G to tell his story because, “if I die, I want people to know why I died”, said the quietly spoken former “green bomber” — as the National Youth Service volunteers are known.

In the course of several exhaustive interviews, Gweru related how he and three other individuals, whose identity the M&G knows but cannot divulge, who were selected for their mental and physical prowess during initial para-military training, came to be known as the “Charlie four” unit. There are also other such units, but Charlie four was considered to be the best, Gweru said.

Charlie four, which reported to senior Zanu-PF and CIO officials in Harare, eventually took its orders from a man named Joshua Sibanda, who, Gweru said, appeared to be the head of the CIO’s directorate of counter-intelligence operations.

Sibanda — who always wore a CIO ID card identifying him as Phillip Chitiyo — also contacted the M&G as well as human rights workers in Namibia this week, and offered to “make a deal on that young man”.

In several telephonic conversations, in which Sibanda identified himself by his real name and made it clear that he had access to Namibian cellphone records, he threatened that “he [Gweru] will not get away”.

Namibian security officials contacted for comment expressed serious alarm at Sibanda’s activities and promised to investigate what they termed “a totally illegal foreign operation”.

Throughout their training, which included political indoctrination, weapons handling, martial arts and torture techniques, it was always impressed upon members of the squads that they were to support the presidential campaign of Emmerson Mnangagwa and not vice-president Joyce Mujuru, who was considered a political liability by the CIO, Gweru said.

In a period of training over six months — and interspersed with “technical assignments”, which included guarding and spying on certain government ministers’ homes in Harare –Gweru said he had been involved in sabotaging the Harare-Bulawayo railway line, breaking up an MDC rally at which opposition activist Trudi Stevenson’s arm was broken, and petrol-bombing certain offices and homes.

Each “assignment” was effectively seen as a test of the group’s loyalty and reliability, and the assignments became increasingly violent as time went on.

Namibian human rights activists who heard Gweru’s testimony said the details he has provided are consistent with reports they have about torture, violence and the existence of secret prisons in Zimbabwe. Gweru, who was moved out of Namibia to an unknown European destination by human rights workers this week, continues to fear for his life, and for the lives of his remaining relatives in Zimbabwe.

‘Beating where it hurts’

Throughout training it was made clear to the Youth Service members that the worst possible fate awaited anyone who dared run away. They were shown several secret jails in which people who had defied the Mugabe regime were being held, Gweru said.

On their first visit to Zanu-PF headquarters in Harare in the middle of last year, a certain Tawanda took them down to the B2 section, a former parking garage underneath the building. There, Tawanda used a remote control to open a hidden door to a section of prison cells, Gweru said. Among the prisoners were two white men, one of whom told Gweru that he had been abducted and accused of being a CIA spy. Tawanda later told the group that the people were all “political prisoners”.

The same day, they were taken to the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) headquarter’s top floor where they were shown a cell containing six people in leg chains and manacles and covered in blood. They were told not to talk to them, Gweru said.

A day later at Bindura farm, their instructors identified only as Muza, Mazhombwe and Mkarati arrived in two vehicles, one of which was a prison van with three men dressed in uniforms.

They were told that the men were long-term prisoners “who would not be missed by anyone” and on whom they were to try their newly acquired torture techniques: “electronically, randomly and beating where it hurts”.

When the first prisoner was manacled to a special table, they were told to beat him under the feet. When Gweru’s instructor did not find him enthusiastic enough for his instructors’ liking, he was “lashed” with a rubber baton and given gin to drink and marijuana to smoke.

He and his colleagues then proceeded to beat the prisoners’s feet until they turned black and their victim defecated before passing out. Gweru wept as he recalled how the second man was tortured with an electronic device that looked like an “old-fashioned amplifier” until he also defecated and passed out.

For the third man, Mkarati took out a first-aid box that contained packaging tape, a hammer, a screw-driver and a pair of pliers, which Mkarati then used to rip pieces of the victim’s ear off after taping up his mouth. Mazhombwe then took over and used the pliers to rip out one of the victim’s testicles.

Months later, the group was driven to a farm in the Goromonzi area, guarded by the Zimbabwean Defence Force. They were taken to a basement where there were about 20 people in leg chains, all showing signs of severe torture.

These people, they were told, were also “political prisoners” who had attempted to assassinate President Robert Mugabe. Some were as young as 18 to 22 years, Gweru said.

Early on in his training, it was made clear to Gweru that once he were part of the National Youth Service system, there was no getting out. At one stage, he and four of his friends were forced to gang-rape a female Youth Service volunteer as “punishment” for making an illegal phone call, and he and his friend Gideon decided to run away.

Female volunteers, who numbered between 50 and 60 of the 250 youths at Bindura Farm, were regularly raped, Gweru said. Some of the male youths would boast about “fixing” this or that girl, and many sported bite marks on their shoulders, he said.

At night, he could hear screams coming from the adjacent female dorms, and their instructors regularly used the women as sex slaves.

No one was allowed to leave — when he and Gideon were caught trying to escape, they were locked up. The next day they were publicly flogged by Mazhombwe. Because Mazhombwe liked him, Gweru was not beaten so badly. Gweru had also told his “instructors” that he just wanted to get out of the camp for a bit but was going to return before the 5am whistle.

His friend Gideon, however, was defiant: he was fed up with being “treated like a dog” and insisted that he would leave. Drunk, instructors beat Gideon so savagely that some of the women who were forced to watch started crying.

Two days later, when he was released, Gweru found out that Gideon had died from the beating. The cook who brought him sadza and cold cabbage told him: “Let that be a lesson to you.”


The most testing assignment from Sibanda, Gweru’s Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) handler, came in October last year.

Sibanda told Gweru and his three colleagues to deliver a package to Lake Kariba. Once there, they were to locate a spot close the Zambian border where they would find a speedboat. Sibanda provided them with cash and the keys to a silver Honda, which had a large trunk wedged in the back. Sibanda told them that they would find the instructions on what to do with the trunk in the back of the car.

On the way to Lake Kariba, they realised that there was someone in the trunk. Once they had arrived at the lake they found the speedboat with a bag of cement inside.

They realised they were being watched by someone wearing camouflage. Inside the trunk was a man whose arms had been sliced and whose wrist-bones were exposed from being handcuffed. The man spoke with difficulty as his lacerated tongue bled profusely when he appealed to them: “Please help me, my sons.”

Knowing that they were being observed, they continued the operation, taking the boat to a point about 50m into the lake, Gweru said.

At this point they heard a vehicle starting and could see a green Jeep Cherokee, as used by the Zimbabwean Defence Force speeding off. They subsequently dumped the trunk into the lake.

A few months later Gweru had had enough. In early January he fled via Botswana “as far away as I could” before ending up in the remote southern Namibian coastal town of Lüderitz.

Checking the story

Fully aware of the risk that the Mail & Guardian could be set up, the paper’s Namibian correspondent, John Grobler, went to unusual lengths to check the credibility of “John Gweru”.

Gweru phoned Grobler on March 28 from Lüderitz to say he had fled from Zimbabwe and feared for his life. Insisting a meeting could not wait, he travelled to Windhoek and met Grobler on March 30.

Grobler then took him through a four-stage verification process, designed to check his account for inconsistencies and improbabilities, comprising:

  • A two-and-a-half-hour debriefing by Grobler alone on March 30;

  • A three-hour debriefing in the presence of the executive director of Namibia’s National Society for Human Rights (NSHR), Phil ya Nangoloh;

  • A 55-page written statement by Gweru, compiled without assistance;

  • A four-and-a-half-hour videotaped interview at the NSHR’s Windhoek headquarters on April 2, in the presence of Zimbabwean journalist Prince Chipanda.

There were no inconsistencies between the accounts, and Grobler, ya Nangoloh and Chipanda all believe Gweru has told the truth. The M&G would generally not publish single-source stories, but we believe we have gone as far as possible to verify Gweru’s account. It concurs with evidence coming out of Zimbabwe from numerous sources.

Grobler said he had been further convinced by Gweru’s “palpable fear” at any mention of his handler, Sibanda, and his visible anguish while recounting his experiences.

The M&G knows Gweru’s real name, and has a copy of his passport.

* Not his real name

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John Grobler
Guest Author

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