By NQOBANI NDLOVU
The exhumation of the remains of Gurahundi victims buried in mass graves dotted around Matabeleland and those thrown into mine shafts will pose ethical challenges as it will require the consent of all relatives, an expert has warned.
Shari Eppel, the executive director of Bulawayo-based Ukuthula Trust, an independent body of forensic archaeologists and forensic anthropologists, pointed out the ethical dilemma in an exclusive interview with The Standard.
Ukuthula Trust has exhumed scores of Gukurahundi victims since the late 1990s.
On April 27, the trust exhumed the bodies of Justin Tshuma and Thembi Ngwenya in Tsholotsho’s Enkwalini area. The couple was killed by the Fifth Brigade in March 1983.
The exhumation was witnessed by the community, family members and the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission, among other stakeholders.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa recently announced a cocktail of measures to address the 1980s Gukurahundi mass killings, with exhumations and reburials among some of them.
“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,” Eppel said.
“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.”
Mass graves are dotted across Matabeleland where victims were tortured, killed and buried by the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade in the early 1980s in Midlands and Matabeleland.
According to reports, more than 20 000 civilians lost their lives.
“Human remains and mass graves lie in most districts of Matabeleland North and South, as well as some in mining 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,” Eppel added.
“This is an area where we need more eyewitnesses to come forward… It is most 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.
“Exhumation and reburial of the victims is one of the recommendations of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace Report on Gukurahundi: Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace: A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands 1980-1988.”
Ukuthula Trust has been part of the Missing Persons Task Team, a group of experts that works in South Africa to recover those who were reported as missing to the South African Truth Commission.
The organisation has been invited to Germany to exhume remains of American World War II soldiers for return to the United States of America.
They have also been invited to Spain, where remains of those who were killed by General Franco’s army in the Civil War of the 1920-30s are being exhumed.