They were given marijuana to dull their senses and alcohol to increase their rage. But after months of carrying out a campaign of terror against government-opposition supporters, even the haze of intoxication was not enough to hide the horror of their actions.
"First they gave us dagga [marijuana]. We smoked dagga and smoked dagga and then we got drunk. Then we burned the houses, took the cattle, and beat people," says Henry, a teenager and former member of Zimbabwe's feared National Youth Service. Henry fled to South Africa and is now living on the streets of a run-down Johannesburg neighborhood. Henry and others who spoke to the Monitor asked that their names not be used out of fear of retaliation against them or their families.
"The worst thing I did," he says, "was beat my own grandmother because she was opposing [President Robert Mugabe's party].... After that, I felt so bad that I ran away from Zimbabwe."
More than a year after Zimbabwe's contested presidential elections, which many observers say was stolen by Mr. Mugabe, violence against opposition supporters continues. In the aftermath of a two-day opposition-led strike in March, while the world's eyes were focused on Iraq, hundreds of Zimbabweans were beaten and hospitalized, arrested and tortured. Last week, a three-day strike led to the arrest of many opposition workers during raids on their offices.
In recent months, attacks have been reportedly committed by the police and military. But much of the violence is blamed on the National Youth Service, nicknamed the "green bombers" after their uniforms and the destruction they leave in their paths.
Human rights groups estimate there are 10,000 young men in the National Youth Service, in camps at schools and community centers around the country. The government established the service two years ago to teach skills and patriotism, and to get young people involved in community projects.
But many Zimbabweans say the young men have been trained by the military to terrorize opposition supporters and dissidents. The government denies this claim.
Until now, most of what was known about the bombers' darker side came from victims. But a few of these young men, like Henry, have fled Zimbabwe and are telling their stories.
Most are just teenagers and see themselves as victims of Zimbabwe's political turmoil, just like the people they beat and raped. On the run from their own government, harassed by South African police, and shunned by their own countrymen, they're asking for forgiveness and help. But few Zimbabweans are ready to so easily forgive.
"You're left now with a large number of people who have done things and need to be integrated back into the community - but they've done terrible things," says Tony Reeler, regional human rights defender for the Institute of Democracy in South Africa. "I think there's no doubt, and all the evidence shows, that these young people become deeply disturbed themselves. Compassion says they need help. Human rights and law says they're villains."
Like most of the 20 or so former bombers who he has met up with here in Johannesburg, Henry came from a poor family in a "high-density suburb" - a euphemism for the black slums - near Zimbabwe's second-largest city, Bulawayo.
With few prospects, he says he joined the bombers because he was promised land and a job in the Army. All the boys in his area over 16, he says, were told they could join and be rewarded, or resist and be beaten. Henry joined, but the land and the jobs never materialized.
For months, the trainees lived in a tent near a secondary school, going through boot-camp-style training. They ran, jumped, and learned to handle guns and spears. The training was conducted under the watchful eye of military officers.
Later, they were given uniforms and were deployed to harass opposition supporters and man food lines. They prevented anyone without a ruling-party card from buying food. In a country where more than 7 million were said to be at risk of starvation recently, food was as powerful a weapon as a gun.
Twenty-two-year-old Luscious, the oldest of the Johannesburg group, stutters heavily when he speaks; it's a problem, his friends say, that increases when he is angry or emotional. Stumbling over the words, he says he burned houses, watched while children were raped, and shot a white farmer. But he says it was the alcohol and drugs, not him, that did these things.
"I didn't realize," Luscious says of the day he shot the farmer. "I was drunk. Afterwards, when I was sober, I came to my mind. I said, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.' "
Luscious says he wants counseling, food, and a place to stay, but Zimbabwe's exile community here is generally unwilling to help the men who terrorized them at home.
The South African government refused to comment on the bombers' presence here. But the increasing number of Zimbabweans coming to Johannesburg to escape political oppression and economic disaster is making the situation across the border increasingly difficult for the South African government to ignore.
Officially, South Africa says Zimbabwe is on the mend and continues to protect its neighbor from international censure. Last week, with the backing of other African and Asian countries, South Africa stopped the United Nations Human Rights Commission from condemning Zimbabwe for human rights violations.
Henry knows those human rights violations occurred. He just hopes he will be forgiven for his part in them. "They must forgive us," he says. "Because we didn't know what we were doing."