At a time when former president Robert Mugabe’s government avoided debate on Gukurahundi massacres to an extent that talk about the bloody past was criminalised, a human rights activist was helping the victims find closure by identifying remains of their relatives for decent burials.
Shari Eppel, the director of Ukuthula Trust, which was in the headlines last week after leading the exhumation of remains of a young Tsholotsho couple that was shot in cold blood by soldiers from the 5th Brigade, believes bones of the Gukurahundi victims are “speaking and have a right to be heard”.
She leads a team of forensic archaeologists and forensic anthropologists under Ukuthula Trust, which has been carrying out exhumations in Matabeleland for more than 20 years.
Eppel (SE) told our senior reporter Nqobani Ndlovu (NN) that the number of people killed during Gukurahundi may never be known because of ethical issues around exhuming remains in mass graves and mine shafts.
NN: You have been working with communities affected by Gukurahundi in Matabeleland for many years, where remains of a number of people killed by the 5th Brigade have been reburied. Please give us a brief background.
SE: I personally have been researching and writing about violence in Matabeleland since 1995, including being the primary author and primary researcher of the (Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace) CCJP/(Legal Resources Foundation) LRF report, Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace: A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands 1980-1988.
Many others contributed in many ways to this document.
It was the first transitional justice report related to the 1980s, and for me, the recommendations remain as relevant now as they did in the 1990s.
It was no accident that the report included the words “Building True Peace” in the title, and this remains paramount to our team.
Our work is aimed at resolving and not enflaming conflicts, wherever possible. It was the recommendations of “Breaking the Silence” that in fact drove our work in Matabeleland, in particular the recommendations both on recovery of human remains and on psychosocial support and rehabilitation for victims of violence.
It must also be clarified that of course, there are still surviving victims of the war of independence, who also carry wounds to this day, and we have always included them in our programmes, as well as victims of Gukurahundi.
NN: Tell us about the history of the exhumations.
SE: When our team began community consultations in Matabeleland South, including with traditional leadership, we realised that our Western medical approach as to how widespread state violence impacted people, was flawed.
People did not talk to us of “depression” and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — concepts, which were alien to rural villagers.
Instead they immediately spoke about the “angry dead”, and of those who were buried in the wrong place, interfering with community activities.
It was explained by the chiefs that these dead were “bones in the forest”, in need of being moved, to be buried in the right place, in the right way, by the right people.
This meant burials in family grave yards, by family members in the presence of traditional leadership — with rituals taking place, including “umbuyiso” a year later.
Only if this was done, could the dead be at peace and become a useful and constructive presence in the ancestral spirit hierarchies.
This is why we began to exhume — we realised that to heal the living, we had to first “heal the dead”.
We have always been aware that exhumation and analysis of remains is a highly skilled task, and called on the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) to come to Zimbabwe and begin training us in forensic archaeology and forensic anthropology.
This was in 1998, more than 20 years ago.
Between 1999 and 2001, we jointly conducted exhumations of around 20 people, in a few weeks of digging each year.
Since 2014, we have resumed occasional exhumations, when requested by traditional leadership and families to undertake them.
We see our role as that of a team with a unique skill, who can use that skill to facilitate what families want.
NN: What have you been able to learn from the bones? What does your team do in the field?
SE: We dig using forensic archaeological principles, which means that we preserve context at every point, and above all dig very carefully to allow the bones to be fully revealed without any damage or disturbance of the remains.
This process is meticulously recorded both with a running log, and with photographs.
The families and traditional leaders are encouraged to undertake rituals or prayers at any point, before, during and after the process, and to observe what we are doing, in the interests of total transparency.
This is about healing, and about respect for human remains, respect for families, and for cultural needs.
NN: What would you say are the positive outcomes of these reburials for the affected families?
SE: Expert exhumation allows for recovery of historical memory, for families, for communities, and eventually, I hope, for the nation.
This is a very moving process for families, as they see for the first time in decades, the clothing and personal effects of their loved ones.
In the case of grandchildren, and even children who were very young at the time of death of a parent, they are effectively meeting their parent or grandparent for the first time.
For eyewitnesses and those who witnessed the death/s, exhumation is vindication of their personal statements about events.
Gukurahundi has remained an unspoken topic for so long, and very few settings can encourage and release truth telling as effectively as being present at an exhumation or reburial, as those who have attended either, will testify.
Bones too, have a right to speak and be heard, without being crudely removed from the earth in a way that silences them.
We welcome the announcement from the government that it is now acceptable for anyone to talk about Gukurahundi, and assume that this means that bones have a right to talk too, without being broken, commingled or hurriedly removed and hurriedly reburied.
Commingling is the mixing up of bones from different individuals, and this is expressly against all international standards and conventions concerning the disappeared and dead.
If non-experts dig up mass graves, commingling is inevitable.
Healing and recovery of memory are processes that begin prior to exhumation, during lengthy and repeated discussions with relatives and communities about the dead person, who may not have been spoken of for years.
We find that often those who were very young at the time of Gukurahundi have not even been told how their parent died, simply that he is dead, such is the fear and silence still around the topic.
In our observation, families often meet and discuss the violent deaths in detail for the first time in the context of wanting an exhumation.
This process continues through to the reburial.
NN: What happens after exhumation?
SE: Once bones are expertly exhumed, they need to be expertly examined, a process called forensic anthropology.
I have personally been trained to Masters Level in USA to evidentiary and professional standards.
Our team as a whole has been trained by the Argentineans, by the University of Pretoria Anatomy Department, and by other international experts over the years.
The team needs to establish the biological profile of the dead person/s, prior to exhumation, so that our examination of the bones can confirm one way or another the probability that the remains are indeed those of the proposed individual.
We will ask family members the age at time of death, the approximate height of the individual, and anything about the teeth that can be remembered, as dental records are almost unheard of.
Also the history of any broken bones during the life of the person will be asked about, as a bone healed even for decades may still show a slight callus.
As the years go by, there are fewer and fewer people left alive who can inform us of the biological and health history of the dead…. DNA testing remains a possibility where absolutely necessary, but extracting DNA from bones is expensive and highly specialised and cannot be done in Zimbabwe.
Depending on the condition of the bones, which can vary considerably depending on the soil and whether it has partially destroyed the bones or not, we are able to establish probable ancestry, sex, approximate age at time of death, and approximate stature of the deceased.
We can also establish pre-, peri and post mortem trauma. Peri-mortem trauma is trauma associated with time of death, and can be divided into blunt, sharp, ballistic and burnt trauma, or any combination thereof.
We have come across all these types of trauma during exhumations.
Giving this information to families can be painful, but is also often what they most want to hear.
It is frequently not possible to find a cause of death, as most deaths are caused by organ failure of some kind, and the soft tissues are no longer there.
What remains in the bones is the scarcest of narratives, and sometimes there is nothing to be seen: it is only if bones have been fractured by bullets, or broken or cut by blunt or sharp objects, that trauma is visible.
It is quite possible for bullets to pass through a torso without breaking bones, for example. It is our role to be conservative and give a simple voice to what is indisputable.
NN: Do you think that the reburials can help the victims to find justice, and if so, how?
SE: Justice takes many forms, and I am personally in favour of restorative justice, which exhumations can certainly contribute to.
In fact, exhumations happen daily around the world, for restorative justice processes.
For example, our team has exhumed with the Missing Persons Task Team (MPTT), a team of experts that works in South Africa to recover those who were reported as missing to the South African Truth Commission.
We have worked with them in the field in South Africa for several years now.
The simple intention of the current MPTT exhumations is to find and return remains to families for reburial.
We have been asked to exhume in Germany this summer, to recover American WWII veterans for return to the USA, and have also been invited to exhume in Spain, where those who were killed by Franco’s army in the Civil War of the 1920-30s are now being exhumed, at the request of grandchildren and great grandchildren.
In all of these cases, exhumations are about recovery of memory, and recovery of remains for families to have closure and the truth.
We have much left to learn, as this is a complicated field, and are very grateful for the opportunities other forensic experts have given us.
In Cyprus, which I visited last year, there is a longstanding programme run by Turkish Cyprus, Greek Cyprus and the United Nations, to recover and return the approximately 3 000 people who disappeared in the 1970s coup.
There is an express understanding there will be no prosecutions, simply return of remains to families.
I could continue to list the many contexts in which exhumations are about restorative justice, with families and their need for the truth at the centre.
Of course, there are also contexts in which bones are used for purposes of criminal justice, but we are a mental health team at heart, and are concerned about healing and “building true peace”.
I think people underestimate the challenges of meeting the criteria for criminal justice after all these years, apart from properly assessing whether peace is more important than justice.
This is simply my opinion and I am aware that others differ fiercely – I care about families and communities having the space and support to move on from the past by knowing the truth at the level of their families, and being able to ‘heal’ their dead.
I am also aware of the urgency of our task – the parents, widows, and neighbours who can bear witness and help us to identify who is buried where, and give us the necessary biological information to ensure good documentation and conclusions are all getting older every year.
Soon, we will have lost all the context and all the people we need to help give a voice to the dead.
Yet in years to come, children and grandchildren may be desperately searching for these dead.
Graves are disappearing into the landscape, without eye witnesses having indicated and properly documented them.
When the eye witnesses die, so does the possibility of knowing where and who the dead are.
NN: You were at the recent Tsholotsho exhumation. How did it impact on families and the community? Was the Tsholotsho event linked in any way to the new thrust allowing for exhumations of Gukurahundi victims?
SE: The exhumation, which was witnessed mostly by the family, local leadership and local community, was also attended by the NPRC, who spoke very positively about the exercise.
Ukuthula is deeply appreciative of the recognition by both the state and the NPRC of the urgent need to exhume and rebury.
Two families were involved in and observing the exhumation last week, and both were extremely positive and grateful, as were the local leadership who spoke out formally at the event.
The exhumation was not specifically linked to any recent pronouncements – we have known about this grave since 2007, and the families renewed their requests for exhumation earlier this year.
But we sincerely hope that recent pronouncements will lead to further exhumations – and would urge the state to make it clear that only those who are fully trained in forensic anthropology should undertake these, to ensure the integrity and voice of the bones being maintained.
NN: What is your reaction to the stance by local chiefs that exhumations without truth telling would compromise evidence of the mass killings?
SE: Truth telling happens at micro and macro levels.
As I have previously noted, nothing opens the way for truth telling at the level of families and villages as powerfully as an exhumation, except possibly a reburial made possible by an exhumation.
And each exhumation cumulatively contributes to a bigger understanding of what happened – who died, and how.
Truth is also about political truth, it is also about what happened between political groupings, armies and combatants, and how civilians became ruthlessly caught up in this – the chiefs are right, this truth also needs to be told, by all sides, and I sincerely hope it will be.
And where apologies are due, and where accountability is needed, others, in particular the chiefs, should be concerned about this happening.
The role of our team is to make sure that the voices of the dead are not lost or wilfully destroyed in all of this.
NN: Do you think Zimbabwe has enough forensic experts to carry out the exhumations of the thousands
buried in mass graves in Matabeleland and the Midlands?
And given that some of the remains have become exposed or washed away by rains, will exhumations give a true picture of the extent of the killings?
SE: Zimbabwe is in the unique situation of having a well-trained and expert team of forensic archaeologists and forensic anthropologists in the form of Ukuthula Trust.
As far as I am aware, Zimbabwe is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa, apart from South Africa, that has such a team.
There are of course individual forensic experts and archaeological experts across Africa doing such work, in academic institutions, police and other government departments.
It would be important for us to liaise with such experts, especially in Zimbabwe, and share skills, as we are among very few, if not the only, such non-governmental team on the continent, who combine forensic archaeology and forensic anthropology in one full-time team.
Passing on skills is important for us all.
Of course, what we can do as one team is limited, but there are also many misconceptions about what exhumations accomplish in any context.
For example, in no country ever, have exhumations been used to settle questions of how many died.
Many people, possibly most, who died during the 1980s were in fact buried by their families in their chosen places.
These are not in need of exhumation. On the other hand, there are indisputably many mass graves and single graves in the wrong places, such as in school yards, business centres, next to roads and railway lines.
We have previously exhumed from a school playing field, from a cattle dip, from the forests.
Our team has principles, which are in keeping with international criteria, for when and where exhumations should occur.
In the past we have always exhumed at the request of families and traditional leadership, and for purposes of recovery of historical memory and
We are prepared to exhume also at the request of the state or the NPRC in the future, in adherence with our broader principles.
If there is a mass grave, we consider it unethical to exhume unless all families of those buried have been thoroughly consulted and all families agree on exhumation.
If even one family does not, we believe that exhumation should not take place.
There are also, in our opinion, huge challenges in exhuming sites in which the identities of those buried are not known.
What happens to such remains? Do they simply end up being reinterred in new sites or new mass graves, effectively remaining the angry dead?
What needs to be done in such instances, is extensive research prior to exhumation, to find eye witnesses – we have exhumed several individuals whose families thought they were disappeared, but on inquiry, we found eye witnesses in neighbouring villages who knew exactly where these disappeared individuals were buried.
So historical investigation is key, prior to exhumations of those who may be assumed to be unknown.
There are many families who have disappeared relatives and it is to be hoped they will turn out to be buried nearby, once research is done.
Exhuming the unknown and thereafter taking DNA from bones, storing all this information digitally, setting up reference DNA from living relatives and pursuing matches is something we might aspire to, but would be very costly and consume a great deal of space and time.
Should such bones be reburied and then dug up again once a match is found, possibly years or decades later?
Or should bones of the unknown be stored somewhere, until a match is found?
The latter is done in Argentina, for example, and poses challenges in terms of space and security.
It can be done, but it makes sense that the first focus has to be to conduct detailed research and find whose remains are where, prior to exhumation, wherever possible.
Of course, if unknown dead are buried where they should not be, such as in a school yard, or where a new road is scheduled to run, it is important that they are removed forensically and respectfully reburied.
So there are many considerations in prioritising sites for exhumation.
It is mostly likely, in our estimation of documenting this for many years, that those who are a top priority for exhumation probably number more in the hundreds, or in the very low thousands, for reasons given above.
The bones have waited a long time – while it is desirable that they are exhumed as soon as possible, it is even more desirable that they are exhumed expertly, maintaining the possibility of proper identification and return to the right families.
Our team stands ready to exhume in accordance with international best practice, at the pace that we can, while simultaneously maintaining this best practice.
This is years of work, in my estimation, and should not be rushed, although it should be expedited.
Our focus has always been on what families want, and this will remain at the centre of our work.
NN: Some maintain that a considerable number were buried at Bhalagwe Camp. Where else are victims of Gukurahundi buried in mass graves?
SE: I think this has been partially answered above. Human remains and mass graves lie in most districts of Matabeleland North and South, as well as some in mine shafts.
I must add that while we know that scores at least died at Bhalagwe, if not more, we have very few actual names of who died there, which will make recovery and identification problematic.
This is an area where we need more eye witnesses to come forward.
NN: What advice would you give to the government before it undertakes the mass exhumation of Gukurahundi victims?
SE: Bones have a right to be heard, and this should not be denied to them.
This means that forensic anthropologists need to be included in exhumations.
There are international minimum standards for exhumation that should be adhered to, to ensure that remains are not collected in a disorganised fashion, which is the equivalent of the hacking off of limbs of corpses.
Nobody with any ethical standards would ever hack up the dead, and throw sundry limbs higgledy-piggledy into graves, minus their fingers and toes – skeletons deserve the same respect.
They need to retain their bodily integrity during the process of exhumation.
Above all, families and community leadership need to drive the processes of exhumation, with full consultation and opportunities to be heard.