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02/27/2013

Rape a naked power play in Mugabe's Zimbabwe: report

Mugabe birthday pix
President Robert Mugabe (4th R) and first lady Grace Mugabe (2nd R) celebrate his 89th birthday  at the State House, February 20, 2013, the eve of his birthday. Zimbabwe is expected to hold a constitutional referendum on March 16, 2013 and elections in July, but no dates have been set. AFP PHOTO / JEKESAI NJIKIZANAJEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images

For Sara Andrews, the stories of Zimbabwean women whose children witnessed their rapes were the most disturbing.

“The violence was horrific,” said the New York lawyer, who made four trips to neighboring South Africa to collect evidence of a rape campaign allegedly orchestrated by President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party. “Some of the women were simply numb to the world. How others survived and were able to function at any level was beyond me.”

The fact-finding missions paid off this week as the South African government made a landmark decision to investigate the allegations of sexual violence against Mugabe’s political foes as a crime against humanity. It was the result of a years-long effort by Stephen Lewis and Paula Donovan’s AIDS-Free World and its Zimbabwean partners to bring them to light and their perpetrators to justice.

The group submitted testimony from 84 alleged victims who had fled Zimbabwe, as well as witnesses, doctors and NGOs. They listed with the names of over 200 suspected perpetrators and organizers of the rapes, which allegedly took place during Zimbabwe’s 2008 election campaign.

Andrews, assistant director of the global pro bono initiative New Perimeter, works for the DLA Piper law firm, which donated its services. In spite of experience with human rights cases in Kosovo, South Africa, Mexico and other countries, she was “horrified and outraged” at what she heard from Zimbabwean refugees.

“This was rape as a political weapon,” she said. “I’d read tales of torture and mayhem. But reading something and speaking to someone in front of you who had lived the horror are two different experiences.”

Victims ranged in age from “five-year-old girls to elderly grandmothers.” What they all had in common were links with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change: opposition Mugabe was determined to crush at any cost.

“In many instances five or more men committed the rapes together,” the report said. “Many women were forced to watch their husbands, children and parents killed or tortured before they were raped.” Nine of the women believed they were infected with HIV/AIDS, and 17 later tested positive for HIV. Ten women said they became pregnant after the rapes.

Will the perpetrators be brought to justice? That’s still an open question.

The International Criminal Court can’t prosecute, because Zimbabwe is not a member. And Zimbabwe’s own human rights commission cannot investigate abuses that took place before 2009. If South Africa decides to take the case, it would be the court of last resort for women who have had no hope of justice. Even if South Africa never lays hands on the suspects, their victims would still have their day in the court of public opinion.

“This was the first time that anyone had asked them for their stories,” said Andrews. “Their lives had been ruined. They were living in terrible conditions as refugees. This lets them know that they haven’t suffered in vain.”

Next door, in Zimbabwe, a national referendum is slated for March 15, followed by a new election in which the 89-year-old Mugabe plans to run.  Women, once again, will be running for cover.

Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights as a correspondent and bureau chief from the former Soviet Union to the Balkan, Northern Ireland, the Middle East and South Asia. She has won both national and international awards, collaborated on two Emmy-winning films and is one of the few journalists to have a war requiem written to her work.

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