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Amnesty: Zim mass grave bodies must be exhumed by experts

Amnesty: Zim mass grave bodies must be exhumed by experts


April 6 2011

Zimbabwe: Mass grave bodies must be exhumed by forensic experts

Hundreds of bodies found in a mass grave in Zimbabwe may never be identified 
unless professional forensic experts carry out the exhumations, Amnesty 
International warned today.

Bodies recently discovered in the Mount Darwin area in northern Zimbabwe, 
have been shown on Zimbabwean television being bundled into plastic bags and 
old sacks to await re-burial increasing the risk that evidence of serious 
human violations could be lost.

“This is a crime scene and exhumations require professional forensic 
expertise to enable adequate identification, determination of cause of death 
and criminal investigations,” said Michelle Kagari, Amnesty International’s 
deputy director for Africa.

”Families of the victims expect the bodies to be identified and to be given 
decent burials in line with traditional and religious practice. As such, 
these bodies cannot simply be consigned to history without proper forensic 
tests to determine who they are and how and why they died.”

In early March 2011, the state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation 
Television (ZBC-TV) reported the exhumations of hundreds of bodies from a 
site in Monkey William Mine/Chibondo Mine in Mt. Darwin district.

ZBC-TV claimed the bodies are those of people killed by the Rhodesian forces 
in the 1970s during the country’s war of independence.

Exhumations were initially carried out by members of the Fallen Heroes 
Trust, a group linked to President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, before 
government officials took over.

On 27 March, the co-Minister of Home Affairs Mr Kembo Mohadi told ZBC-TV 
that the government was taking over the exhumations from the Fallen Heroes 

However, given the scale of human remains discovered so far and the failings 
of the government to immediately secure the site, Amnesty International is 
concerned that international best practice on exhumations is not being 
adhered to.

“The Zimbabwe government must ensure that exhumations are professionally 
conducted according to international standards to properly establish cause 
of death, ensure proper identification and, where possible, to return 
remains to family members,” said Michelle Kagari.

”If the Zimbabwe government does not have the capacity to undertake these 
exhumations properly it must ask for international co-operation and 
assistance to ensure that forensic experts can undertake the exhumations.”

Mishandling of these mass graves has serious implications on potential 
exhumations of other sites in Zimbabwe. Thousands of civilians were also 
killed in Matabeleland and Midlands provinces in the mid 1980s and are 
allegedly buried in mine shafts and mass graves in these regions.

Judge to rule on Mt Darwin exhumations

06/04/2011 00:00:00
by Staff Reporter

ZIPRA war heroes have gone to court to stop the on-going exhumation of what 
are claimed to be remains of the 1970s liberation war combatants in a mine 
shaft in Mt Darwin, Mashonaland Central.

A Bulawayo judge on Wednesday reserved judgement in the application by the 
Zimbabwe People’s Liberation Army Veterans Trust which says the exhumations 
must follow a “legal process”.

The Fallen Heroes’ Trust, an organisation aligned with independence war 
veterans from the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), began 
exhuming skeletons from a disused mine in Mt Darwin last month.

The Fallen Heroes Trust says it has so far recovered over 600 skeletons, 
thought to be victims of atrocities committed by Rhodesian forces in the 
1970s bush war, leading up to Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980.

But the exhumations have sparked controversy, with pathologists suggesting 
visual evidence may point to more recent killings in a nation plagued by 
election violence and politically motivated murders.

The opposition ZAPU and the Welshman Ncube-led MDC have demanded that the 
exhumations be done by pathologists, with a view to determining the 
identities of the dead.

The ZIPRA Veterans Trust, through its legal team headed by Advocate Lucas 
Nkomo, filed a court application last week saying it had concerns that some 
of the skeletons may belong to its members.

The ZIPRA veterans says some of its fighters based at 2:1 Infantry Battalion 
in Mount Darwin died or disappeared during the ZIPRA-ZANLA clashes at the 
time of demobilisation at independence.

“This is the same area where the Fallen Heroes Trust and George Rutanhire 
are conducting the on-going exhumations of remains of persons found in a 
disused mineshaft,” ZIPRA Veterans Trust chairman Retired Colonel Lazarus 
Ncube said in an affidavit filed at the Bulawayo High Court.

Ncube said his organisation has a direct interest and right to take part in 
or be consulted regarding any programme of exhumation of the remains of 
persons who died during the war of liberation or during the 
post-independence military or political hostilities in Zimbabwe.

He added: “During the period from about 1980 to 1988, there are ZIPRA 
fighters who died and others who disappeared during a military operation in 
Matabeleland and Midlands provinces by the Fifth Brigade, commonly known as 

“The Fifth Brigade Gukurahundi operation not only affected ZIPRA members but 
over 20,000 civilians as documented by the Legal Resources Foundation and 
the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe in a report titled 
‘Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace: A Report on the Disturbances in 
Matabeleland and Midlands, 1980 to 1988′, published in February 1997.

“The Fallen Heroes Trust and George Rutanhire have not consulted all 
stakeholders and interested parties before embarking on the on-going 
exhumations in Mt Darwin.

“The government does not seem to be involved in the on-going exhumations, 
yet the exhumation of the remains of persons who died during the 
pre-independence and post-independence military and political hostilities is 
of undoubted national significance as it touches on many people countrywide 
whose relatives died during that time.”

Justice Nicholas Mathonsi said he would rule on the matter on Thursday after 
determining the ZIPRA veterans’ “locus standi” on events happening in 

The skeletons found in a mine shaft of the remote Monkey William Mine, about 
160km north-east of Harare, have brought a macabre thrust to election 
campaigning in Zimbabwe — but the presence of some corpses still with skin, 
hair and body fluids has raised doubts over claims white colonial-era troops 
committed the massacres more than 30 years ago.

The Fallen Heroes of Zimbabwe Trust, a previously little known group made up 
of President Robert Mugabe’s loyalists, last month launched a programme to 
exhume skeletons in the mine shaft saying the country’s former white rulers 
were guilty of human rights violations that far outweigh any accusations of 
rights abuses levelled against Mugabe’s party and his police and military.

Zimbabwe’s sole broadcaster, in news bulletins and repeated interruptions to 
regular programmes, has urged ordinary citizens to visit the disused mine in 
the Chibondo, near the provincial centre of Mount Darwin, to witness the 
horror of colonial atrocities.

Reporters taken to the mine on a trip organised by the Ministry of 
Information said school children were bused there. Militants sang 
revolutionary songs, shouted slogans and denounced whites and Prime Minister 
Morgan Tsvangirai’s pro-Western party for its links with Britain, the former 
colonial power.

“Down with whites. Not even one white man should remain in the country,” 
villagers, evidently carefully choreographed, proclaimed. They danced at the 
site in what was said to be an ancient ritual to appease the spirits of 
those killed.
Villagers appeared to go into trances and others wept and simulated firing 

Exhumed skeletons, bones and remains lay in random heaps, some covered by 
sheets and blankets, near a pile of coffins. Hair and clothes were clearly 
visible; one corpse wore black tennis shoes. The mine shaft emitted an 
overwhelming stench.

Journalists who descended a 40-meter shaft found a body with what appeared 
to be blood and fluids dripping onto the skulls below.

Jimmy Motsi, a leader of the trust group, told reporters the remains of more 
than 640 bodies have already been removed. Four other mine shafts in the 
district contain human remains, he said.

The Mount Darwin district saw some of the fiercest fighting in the 
seven-year bush war waged by ZIPRA and ZANLA guerrillas that ended white 
rule and swept President Mugabe to power.
Former colonial soldiers say guerrilla dead were disposed of in mass graves 
often doused with gasoline or acid.

Forensic tests and DNA analysis of the remains won’t be carried out, said 
Saviour Kasukuwere, a cabinet minister. Instead, traditional African 
religious figures will perform rites to invoke spirits that will identify 
the dead, he said.

Kasukuwere said the Chibondo remains were discovered in 2008 by a gold 
panner who crawled into the shaft. But spirits of war dead had long 
“possessed” villagers and children in the district, he said.

“The spirits have refused to lie still. They want the world to see what 
Smith did to our people. These spirits will show the way it’s to be done,” 
he said, referring to Ian Smith, the last white Prime Minister of the former 
colony of Rhodesia.

“This is the extent of atrocities committed by the Smith regime. They loot 
our resources and they close up the mine with our bodies.”

Zimbabwe’s own pathology and autopsy facilities have been crippled by the 
country’s economic meltdown under Mugabe’s rule. No DNA testing is available 

Maryna Steyn, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Pretoria in 
South Africa, said human remains should not retain a strong stench after 30 
“Usually, when we have remains that are lying around for more than a few 
years, the bones are no longer odorous,” she said.

Steve Naidoo, a pathologist at South Africa’s University of KwaZulu-Natal, 
said it “seemed strange” that bodies from three decades ago would still have 
some skin.

“Bearing in mind that the bodies are exposed to an open environment, albeit 
in a mine shaft, scavengers can access them quite easily. In 30 years, one 
would expect complete and advanced skeletonisation,” he said.

But Shari Eppel, a Zimbabwean activist of the Solidarity Peace Trust, said 
in the group’s latest Zimbabwe bulletin that the presence of soft tissues 
“is not necessarily an indicator that these bones entered the grave more 
recently, although it could be.”

A process of mummification can occur when bodies are piled on top of each 
other in large numbers and to all but the most expert eye “mummified flesh 
will look the same as rotting soft tissues from a more recent era,” Eppel 

Only expert forensic anthropologists can establish ages, the sex and causes 
and dates of death from a complete set of skeletal remains of one individual 
and therefore “return identity and life experiences” to the dead.
The era of the manufacture of clothing, coins, belt buckles and other items 
would also be taken into account.

Eppel said the human remains are being indiscriminately hauled from the 
Chibondo mine shaft without decency, respect or any regard for traditional 
African customary beliefs on reverence for the deceased.

“What is happening … is a travesty. Bones speak quietly and in a language 
only an expert can hear. Let’s not silence them forever, but bring them the 
help they need to be heard,” she said.


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