They are the missing regiment: 1,500 men deserting from the Zimbabwean Defense Forces across the South African border, sometimes in groups of two or three, and sometimes in whole platoons.
The loss of a regiment, talked about in hushed tones at Army headquarters in the early part of this year, is no small matter in a country as poor as Zimbabwe. But for the regime of President Robert Mugabe, an anticolonial commander who has always found his staunchest supporters among the military, it could be fatal. If he can't rely on his own security forces to maintain control, one year ahead of crucial presidential elections, how much control does he really have?
"This is the breakdown of Mugabe's most trusted sector; he banked on the military and the security forces," says Sikhumbuzo Ndiweni, a retired Zimbabwe Defense Forces lieutenant colonel and now a commentator on Zimbabwean affairs. Mr. Ndiweni himself fled Zimbabwe in November 2003 because of what he called continual harassment by police.
"This spells doom and a painful end, [in the same vein as] Mengistu, Idi Amin, and Charles Taylor," he says, referring to the former dictators of Ethiopia, Uganda, and Liberia, respectively. One of them, Mengistu Haile Mariam, is living in exile in Zimbabwe.
The picture within the Zimbabwe Defense Forces, as told by officers like Ndiweni and a half-dozen deserters interviewed by the Monitor, is a desperate one. President Mugabe has taken strong measures to ensure that the military will remain at his side. As recently as February, the Army chief of staff, General Chedondo, told his soldiers that all future requests for leave would have to be approved by President Mugabe himself. Deserters would be hanged.
Even so, in February, scores of recently recruited officer cadets quit before finishing their courses at the elite Zimbabwe Military Academy in Gweru. In January, it was broadly reported that 10 commandos from a unit fled on the same night. Neither South Africa nor Zimbabwe has released statistics confirming the desertion and arrival of Zimbabwean soldiers, but the anecdotal evidence suggests that the trickle is turning into a flood.
To fill the gaps, Mugabe has been recruiting people whose loyalty can be trusted, replacing his own Presidential Guard with members of his secret police and filling Army ranks with his party's youth militia and aging veterans of the liberation struggle from the 1970s. Meanwhile, top generals are constructing their own survival strategies, making alliances along tribal and ethnic lines in order to take power – or at least survive – once Mugabe is gone.
"We're moving toward a collapsed state," says Chris Maroleng, a top Zimbabwe expert at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria (now known as Tshwane). Mugabe's crackdown on the Army "shows that the president is preparing for compromise, for mediation. He is tired, frankly."
To ensure loyalty, Mugabe gives priority to the military at the expense of other ministries, Mr. Maroleng says. "Last week, the Central Intelligence Organization's personnel got a 200-percent pay increase. In a security state, anything is acceptable."
But for a professional soldier like Sgt. Patrick Dube, a platoon sergeant and crew commander with five years of combat experience who fled a couple of months ago, there are some things that are unacceptable.
"We were ordered to vote for the ZANU-PF (Mugabe's party), and there were officers who were monitoring our voting; if you complained about salaries, they said 'You are subverting other soldiers' morale,' " says Sergeant Dube, who fought for nearly five years in a controversial Zimbabwean intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But the final straw, says Dube, was when his unit was called to beat up hospital employees striking for higher pay last February.
"The national Army is collapsing, every day the soldiers are running away," he says. "I will never go back. Either I'm going to go to jail [as a result of arrest by South African immigration authorities], or I'll starve to death here."
Peter Shava, a commando from the elite 5th Brigade of the 52nd Battalion who also left a couple of months ago, says his unit was ordered in 2000 to "force white settlers to move off their land. We were armed. The war veterans" to whom the white farmers' land was promised "were not armed. We hit people like hell. They had no choice but to leave."
Corporal Shava found this work distasteful, but "you obey orders. We work under command. You have to do it."
Zimbabwean deserters have been arriving in such numbers that they are beginning to overwhelm the local labor market. On street corners where South Africans and poor refugees of other nationalities used to hawk their services for contractors and gardening services, Zimbabwean soldiers cluster by the dozen. Many are homeless, sleeping in the shrinking spaces between high-priced estates surrounded by 10-ft. walls and electric fencing.
Talking with those who have fled
Sgt. Dennis Chingoma (a pseudonym, given because of his concern of getting arrested by South African police), recently took this reporter into one of these squatter camps in a posh neighborhood. Men wash themselves in a rancid gully and sleep among the boulders and elephant grass. When it rains, they rush to garbage cans to grab newspapers to serve as umbrellas. For food, they dive into dumpsters behind grocery stores, occasionally fighting with refugees of other ethnic groups over postdated loaves of bread.
As dusk falls on this evening, a group of 20 dusty, Shona-speaking Zimbabweans clusters around a reporter to tell their stories. None will admit to being soldiers, but a half dozen of them quarrel among themselves in Shona over whether to tell this outsider about their military careers.
"Are you crazy?" says one former Zimbabwean soldier, in Shona. "Whatever you say here will be read in Harare." A schoolteacher, who seems to be the camp leader, suggests that "next time, you should take them aside privately, and they will feel more comfortable talking with you." The schoolteacher then asks if he can wash this reporter's car.
"They are afraid to talk, but they are desperate," says Sergeant Chingoma, later, who works as a porter at a local bus station and sends home money to his wife through the bus driver. He fled first to Mozambique, then crossed into South Africa in January through the Kruger National Park. It is a treacherous journey. Many Mozambicans have been devoured by the park's lions.
"We are desperate," says Chingoma, who says that most soldiers are leaving because of the economic crisis, not politics. "In Zimbabwe, we are not getting paid. We are just getting promises."
"I was born to be a soldier; I don't want to do anything else," Chingoma says with a sigh. "But ... I have a family to feed. So I do what I have to do: leave my country, take any job I can find on the street, and send money home to my family."