In Zimbabwe, payback time for some

HARARE, Zimbabwe – The "green bomber" dropped into a rural "bottle store" the other day to get a bottle of Lion beer to go, but he wasn't fast enough. Right away he was surrounded by five members of the opposition, people he used to beat up, in a township bar where he used to be king.

"They just surrounded me. They started accusing me of this and that. They just wanted revenge. They said: `Now we got you alone. You used to trouble us during your heyday. Now it’s our day.’ "

He ran, chased by the drunken group.

The green bombers were the ruling party’s shock troops, thugs who killed and terrorized in the name of President Robert Mugabe before elections this year. Just a few months ago, the thought of challenging one of them was unthinkable in Harare’s townships, stagnant and hopeless places where young men hung around sharing cheap beer in plastic bottles and waiting for the "Old Man" to die.

But after Mugabe was forced into a power-sharing deal with the opposition in September, there was a quickening: People were impatient, exuberant, hopeful and fearful of betrayal all at once. Now that the deal has collapsed, the frustration in the capital’s townships is palpable, and the specter of spiraling violence looms over their shabby streets.

People want justice – and without it, some warn darkly, they’ll take matters into their own hands.

Samson Bopoto spent months hiding in the countryside. Every night, he and other MDC activists expected to be killed.

"Now the tables have turned. It’s now ZANU-PF are panicking," said Bopoto, an MDC youth organizer who lives in a Harare township. He and his comrades have taken back the local bar. They sit for hours singing MDC songs, and the former ZANU-PF thugs are nowhere to be seen.

"When they see us coming," the 34-year-old said, "they panic."

Sometimes they come to his house secretly at night, trying to buy forgiveness or at least protection.

Bopoto says it isn’t easy to stop the MDC members from taking revenge. Many are waiting for payback after the Cabinet posts are settled and the MDC takes its share of power.

"Still, our wounds are open. . . . Just imagine seeing somebody who’s the guy who beat up your mom. They say, `Sorry guys, I was forced to do that.’ But we still have a lot of pain."

The September power-sharing deal leaves the way open for prosecutions. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai says Mugabe should not be held responsible for past crimes, but the question of immunity or prosecution for others hangs unanswered, poisoning the talks.

The green bomber used to beat up children just for wearing the wrong color, and set houses on fire with people inside. Interviewed in June, when he was still living at the base, he said he was just "following orders." Now that his own life is in danger, his remorse seems heartfelt.

"It makes me feel bad about myself. At that time I should have realized what I was doing was wrong. I should have resisted. But I couldn’t even do it. I was just trying to protect my family."

His life feels poisoned.

"I feel . . ." He paused. "that I don’t want to feel."