Independent Appeal: Rescuing Zimbabwe's lost generation

They are trained to be the stormtroopers of political violence – but now a veteran of Zimbabwe's freedom struggle is working to redeem them, writes Basildon Peta

They are popularly known as Border Gezi camps. They are named after the man who, as Zimbabwe's Minister of Youth, was put in charge of recruiting young supporters of Robert Mugabe into the militia which is implicated in violent attacks on the political opponents of the Zimbabwean President.

Border Gezi was a firebrand who unashamedly agitated for the use of violence against the opposition. He has since died in a car crash, but the training camps he set up live on – and have become a breeding ground for Zimbabwe's now-entrenched culture that prescribes violence as the only way of settling political differences.

But one extraordinarily brave woman has set up a project to offer an alternative vision to the impoverished youths who have passed through the Border Gezi camps, and who are set to visit the camps' poisonous message of intolerance and intimidation on Robert Mugabe's enemies.

Fay Chung is 68 and a veteran of Zimbabwe's Seventies war of independence from white colonial rule. Born into a Chinese family and suffering the racial segregation of what was then Southern Rhodesia, she gave up a plum job at the University of Zambia to join the liberation struggle.

Having survived the war and seen Mr Mugabe emerge victorious, she went on to oversee the setting up of schools to educate thousands of children in UN refugee camps, which were regularly bombed by the white regime.

After independence she was rewarded with a cabinet position, but quit the Mugabe government in frustration in 1993. "When I left I saw disaster coming but was unable to prevent it," she now recalls. She took up senior jobs with the United Nations in New York and Addis Ababa.

Now at an age when she ought to be ripe for retirement, Ms Chung has instead opted to embark on another titanic struggle: this time to try to help reclaim the youths who have been routinely abused as pawns for political violence in Zimbabwe.

Ms Chung is depressed about the state of her country today. "One could have predicted it," she says of Zimbabwe's descent into its current economic crisis and political stalemate. "What we have now are short- term solutions that cannot last," she adds, alluding to recent unity deals reached by Mr Mugabe and the opposition after disastrous violence-plagued elections.

A brighter future for Zimbabwe can only be secured by the younger generation, she is convinced. "It is going to be the next generation of leaders, the under 35s, who will be able to work out longer-term solutions for the country," she says. And that is why, she insists, it is so important to break the country's culture of violence.

Backed by a women's organisation named Envision she is running a project called Cool Heads. It is aimed at youths between the ages of 14 and 19 from the Border Gezi training camps, many of whom have suffered abuse during their indoctrination in the use of violence against critics of the Mugabe regime.

Philemon Rusere, 23, is one of those who was abducted into a youth militia training camp before fleeing to Johannesburg in 2008. Today he recalls the "abominable and wicked practices I was taught to mete out on Mugabe opponents". Fay Chung's organisation, he feels, is perhaps the "most important project" around to secure a better future for Zimbabwe.

The scale of the problems Envision is addressing is daunting. Every year 190,000 children drop out of primary school in Zimbabwe due to the country's weakened economic state. Many of them end up in the militia camps "just to have food and a place to stay", Ms Chung says.

The Cool Heads project works by helping the youths to greater self-knowledge. They explore their values, problems, aspirations and come to understand their potential.

"We need to get youths to understand that if we disagree, the solution is not to kill each other," says Ms Chung. "We want to build a movement of youths who cannot be used as cannon fodder in political games." The project walks a diplomatic tightrope in Zimbabwe's volatile political climate. But Fay Chung is utilising her contacts with her former comrades in the liberation struggle to persuade them to embrace her conflict resolution and peace building programme.

She does so because in part she attributes the abuse of youth and the use of violence to the structural and institutional framework inherited from the colonial era and perpetuated under the current system.

She does not to go directly to the militia camps but reaches the camps' graduates, using churches and faith-based groups to identify and contact them. Her project tackles domestic as well as political violence.

Her work is backed by the Envision Zimbabwe Women's Trust, which draws women from across the political divide, and works in partnership with Peace Direct – one of the charities for which funds are being raised in The Independent's Christmas Appeal, which remains open until Saturday.

It is also backed by a youth organisation called the Young Voice network which recently organised a grassroots campaign called Not In My Community!

"In a country ravaged by political intolerance, economic mismanagement and social deterioration, Zimbabwean youth have become pawns of political violence," says Diana Patel, one of Envison's trustees. "They have been denied educational and economic opportunities and have had their lives destroyed by poverty, HIV and forced migration."

One of Cool Heads' graduates spells out the problems they face. "The only jobs we can find," he said, "are as cotton pickers, maids, prostitutes, thieves, street vendors and other jobs open to street kids."

The frighteningly large numbers of youths who have fallen and who keep falling victim to political violence in Mugabe's Zimbabwe means that Fay Chung's venture needs all the support the world can muster.

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