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Gukurahundi Massacres: Human Remains (Part 15)


Interviews with civilians resident in Matabeleland North and South made it clear not only that there are mass graves in these parts of Zimbabwe as a result of the 1980s disturbances, but also that this is an issue of concern to residents and affected families.

In this March 18, 2011, photo, a body is brought to the surface at Monkey William Mine about 200 km from Harare. Hundreds of skeletons found at one of the mine shafts have brought a macabre thrust to election campaigning in Zimbabwe, but the putrefying stench of some corpses still with skin, hair and dripping body fluids has raised doubts over claims white colonial era troops committed the massacres more than thirty years ago. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)
In this March 18, 2011, photo, a body is brought to the surface at Monkey William Mine about 200 km from Harare. Hundreds of skeletons found at one of the mine shafts have brought a macabre thrust to election campaigning in Zimbabwe, but the putrefying stench of some corpses still with skin, hair and dripping body fluids has raised doubts over claims white colonial era troops committed the massacres more than thirty years ago. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

It is also known that there are likely to be unrecovered bodies in the Midlands.

The full nature and causes of the disturbances have been covered elsewhere in this report. This section will therefore concentrate on the likely types of human remains at this point and in how best to deal with them.


In this report, people are referred to as “Dead” if their deaths were witnessed. In most cases in Matabeleland North, this also means that what happened to their remains is known, even if all that is known is that the bodies were taken away on trucks. While the current location of the remains of the “Dead” is often known in Matabeleland North, this is less often the case in Matabeleland South.

“Missing” refers in most cases to people who were known to have been taken from their homes at night in mysterious circumstances, or known to have been detained, and never seen again. (See interview , page for an example). There is no indication in these cases as to where bodies might now be.

As the vast majority of victims can be classified as “Dead” rather than “Missing”, the possibility of identifying and recovering human remains for many victims is positive. In this Zimbabwe is more “fortunate” than for example Argentina, where approximately 10 000 disappeared, or Guatemala, where 50 000 people disappeared in recent decades.

The recovery and identification of those who died in the 1980s might also be more easily accomplished than for those who died in the 1970s civil war in what was then Rhodesia, as many of these victims went missing outside of the country, or were killed and buried in regions in Zimbabwe far from their own districts. In spite of the difficulties, many victims of the 1970s war have been successfully recovered and reburied in the years since independence, and the reburial exercise continues.

The establishing of a pre-mortem data base on all “Missing” victims, containing as much physical information on each victim as possible, would dramatically improve chances of identification. The structure of the computer data base currently used in Argentina could be adapted to the Zimbabwean situation.


Murders in the 1980s were perpetrated by both government agencies and dissidents. The case studies in Part Two illustrate that approximately 98% of deaths and disappearances in the communal lands were at the hands of government agencies, and 2% were murders by dissidents. In Tsholotsho, for example, 18 murders by dissidents were claimed by civilians, while a further 900+ deaths and disappearances, mainly perpetrated by 5 Brigade were identified, most occurring in February 1983.

In addition to murders in communal lands, dissidents murdered people living in the sparsely populated commercial farming areas. Approximately 70 deaths in these regions were at the hands of dissidents, not government agencies.

Dissidents would typically murder one or two civilians in the communal lands in any one incident, almost invariably people they believed to be sell-outs. The victims would be murdered and the dissidents would then make a hasty departure before the authorities arrived. This meant that families of victims were able to give their deceased traditional burials.

Other dissident victims were typically commercial farmers and their families or employees, who would also be murdered in hit and run raids or ambushes. These victims too would be left behind and were accorded proper funerals.

There are a few notable exceptions here, namely the six tourists who were abducted and buried in shallow graves, in July 1982. There was also an abduction of two commercial farmers in Bubi, one of whose remains were only recovered years later. Such cases of abduction were not common. In both these cases, remains were ultimately recovered and identified.

Those in mass graves, and those who were not given decent burials are the civilians killed by state agencies, in particular the 5 Brigade. Part Two, III, indicates 1437 killings and 354 disappearances in which the names of victims are known. Of these, 1134 deaths and 169 disappearances were by 5 Brigade.

These figures are known by researchers to be incomplete, with substantial indications on record of large numbers of dead in areas not extensively researched for this report, in particular in Lupane and Nkayi, where mass graves and bodies in mine shafts have been reported. Matabeleland South, including Matobo, Gwanda and Bulilimamangwe also have mass graves and reports of bodies down mine shafts.


It has been previously stated in this report that it was a characteristic of 5 Brigade to insist that there was no mourning for the dead. In some cases the family of the dead victims were themselves shot because they wept. It was also characteristic, particularly of the early weeks of 1983, for victims to be buried in mass graves. In some cases, 5 Brigade would shoot people and pass on with no concern for what happened to the dead, and in these cases, families were able to bury their own dead, although full burial rites and full attendance by family members were not possible because of the prevailing conditions in those weeks.

This part of the report will concern itself with cases in which no proper burial took place. The way in which bodies were disposed of in such cases can be categorised as follows:

1.Bodies left where they were killed and burial forbidden. 2.Bodies buried in mass or individual graves in villages but not in the culturally accepted place or manner. 3.Bodies left inside huts in cases where people were burnt to death in huts. 4.Bodies buried in mass or individual graves at 5 Brigade camps. 5.Bodies dumped into mine shafts.


1. Burial denied: in Lupane in particular, but also in parts of Tsholotsho (see Pumula Mission section), burial was on occasion forbidden, and relatives of the dead were reportedly forced to observe the remains of their dead rotting away and being scavenged. In these cases, bones were sometimes buried months or years later, and in other cases, bones were removed by the 5 Brigade, who came past in trucks and collected them. In cases where bones were removed by 5 Brigade, chances of recovery now are almost non-existent.

2. Mass graves: there are reports of mass graves throughout most of Matabeleland North and South. Compilers of this report personally visited a few such sites. Photographs and video clippings also exist of these graves. What is notable is the careful way in which these graves have been demarcated by civilians in the area: they have often been fenced off with logs, or covered with boulders. In some cases most or all of the actual victims in a grave are still known to those in the area, and in other cases, those buried were strangers to the area, and are completely unknown. In most cases, victims in mass graves were shot dead.

If it was the will of affected communities, relatives of the deceased and the authorities, such graves would provide ideal sites for forensic investigations. The possiblity of identifying at least some, or even all, of the victims in such cases would be extremely high. It would also be likely that cause of death could be established.

3. People buried under huts: there are several incidents of people burnt to death in huts in Tsholotsho, and also reports that this happened in Lupane. In Tsholotsho, there are on record, nine cases where people were burnt to death in huts (see Pumula Mission section). Numbers of victims ranged from 1 to 30, with at least two villages experiencing hut burnings involving large numbers of people. These bodies were not removed from the huts, but were given a makeshift burial where they lay, with soil being mounded over the remains, and the area then being fenced. It is not clear how many hut burnings resulting in deaths happened in Lupane, although at least two are on current records.

If it was the will of affected communities, relatives of the deceased and the authorities, these hut sites would also provide ideal cases for forensic investigation, although cause of death can be harder to establish in the case of burnings (See “cause of death” following).

4. Graves in 5 Brigade camps: those detained at Bhalagwe in Matobo, report the existence of burial grounds within the camp. Ex-detainees, particularly from the early weeks, report the daily digging of graves as one of their chores. Almost every interview about Bhalagwe alludes to daily deaths in the camp, as a result of beatings or shootings. Who victims were is not clear, or exact numbers (see previous discussion on page for more details). However, it seems clear that some, if not all, of the graves at Bhalagwe were dug up and the bodies removed, while the camp was still in operation.

The policy of disposing of bodies changed, or became supplemented within a few weeks, with the throwing of bodies down mine shafts. Visits to Bhalagwe in November of 1996 showed the grave sites to have been dug up, although the position of the graves is still clearly visible. Eye witnesses involved in the burial procedure recount how at the time of burial, bodies were covered with asbestos sheeting before the soil was added, and then further sheeting demarcated the graves clearly. Pieces of this sheeting are still in the now-empty graves (see photo, page ). This could suggest that the graves were only ever intended as a temporary measure, and were designed in such a way as to facilitate later identification of the sites and removal of the bodies. Certainly, the use of the asbestos sheeting is not a normal burial procedure in Zimbabwe, nor was it used in Matabeleland North, where people had been murdered by 5 Brigade the previous year.

5. Mine Shafts: there are reports of human remains in mine shafts in both Matabeleland North and South, though these are more common in Matabeleland South where such shafts abound. In two instances in the 1990s, human remains have been found in mine shafts. In the first instance, they were found in “Old Hat Mine No. 2”, in Silobela in the Midlands, and then remains were also found at Antelope Mine, near Bhalagwe camp in Matobo. Interviews on record, both archivally and recently, refer to the nightly departure of trucks from Bhalagwe, taking away bodies. Accounts by villagers living near the mine confirm that this was the destination.

Those interviewed in Matabeleland South also mentioned Legion Mine, near Sun Yet Sen in the far south of Matobo, as a possible site for the dumping of bodies. Sun Yet Sen was used as an interrogation and detention centre by 5 Brigade in 1983 and 1984.

“Old Hat Mine”: bones were found here in 1992, and CCJP attended their exhumation. Unfortunately, this was not done by forensic anthropologists, and the bones were disturbed by the police, thus destroying potential evidence. The identification of 8 individuals was possible, 2 women and 6 men, but their precise identification was not possible.

Bodies are known to have been thrown down mine shafts in the 1970s, by the Rhodesian army, and the first response of the government to finds in the 1990s was that these were Rhodesian victims. However, coins minted post-Independence and found in the pockets of the deceased, dated the remains in Antelope Mine to the 1980s.

It is unlikely that positive identification of particular victims would be possible if bones were exhumed from mine shafts. This is a consequence of the fact that so little is known about precisely who was dumped into particular shafts. However, such exhumation could be important in terms of validating historical claims.

Evidence of peri-mortem trauma (ie trauma at point of death) might be detectable on the remains. Items such as coins could also help date time of dumping. It is not unlikely that any extensive exploration of mine shafts would also result in the exhumation of victims from the 1970s, although again, precise identification of victims would be difficult.


There seem to be regional differences in body disposal between Matabeleland North and South. In 1983, killings in Matabeleland North were more open and the repression was generally more visible, but in 1984 in Matabeleland South the modus operandi became more clandestine, with victims more frequently dying in 5 brigade camps than in the village setting. There were also fewer killings in 1984.

The disposal of bodies seems to reflect this change in strategy. In 1983 in Matabeleland North, bodies were more commonly disposed of in individual or mass graves in or near villages, or inside burnt huts. At the end of 1983 and in 1984 in Matabeleland South, bodies were disposed of in mine shafts and mass graves located inside 5 Brigade camps, in particular at Bhalagwe, but also at Sitezi and other bases.

The change in body disposal suggests that the 5 Brigade modus operandi deliberately became more secretive in 1984 than it had been in 1983, particularly where killings were concerned. This change in strategy might have been related to growing pressure from local and international press and human rights groups, including from CCJP who were operating within the country, and had made several appeals to government by this stage. This observation might be modified in the light of future evidence.

To summarise the regional differences:

1.”Burials forbidden” is reported to date only in Matabeleland North.

2.”Mass graves” in village settings are reported in all districts, but are more common in Matabeleland North.

3.”Hut burnings” resulting in deaths have to date only been reported in Matabeleland North, mainly from western Tsholotsho and Lupane.

4.”Deaths in 5 Brigade Camps” are reported in all areas, but in Matabeleland North such deaths are not common: method of disposal in Matabeleland North is also not clear. In Matabeleland South, deaths and temporary burials mainly at Bhalagwe and also at camps in Gwanda and Bulilimamangwe are reported.

5.”Mine shaft disposal” is reported mainly in Matabeleland South, but there are also reports of this in Matabeleland North.


– Exhumation assists the relatives of the victims in their right to recover the remains of their dead or missing loved ones, so that they can carry out the customary funeral rights and mourn their dead. Families and affected communities may see the procedure of identification of their dead, or even the willingness to attempt this, as a necessary step towards their own emotional healing.

– Exhumation can provide physical evidence to help in the historical reconstruction of events, and to validate one version of events over another. Forensic investigations can end historical controversies.-

The evidence can be used in court if necessary.

National awareness and acknowledgement of events would follow revelations from the exhumations, which could further help the process of healing for survivors.

1. Cause Of Death: forensic anthropologists only deal with skeletal remains. Therefore, if the cause of death did not affect the skeleton, then there is no way of establishing the cause of death with certainty.

For example, in cases of hut burnings, it may well be that not all, or even none, of the skeletons will show signs of burning. However, some hut burnings were allegedly accompanied by shooting of victims trying to escape, in which case there might be skeletal evidence of bullet wounds. There will also be circumstantial evidence, such as testimonial evidence and the finding of burned elements associated with the remains, such as charred clothing.

Fatal gunshot wounds are likely to involve human bones, particularly shots to the head or thorassic regions, which is where fatal gun shot wounds are typically found. However, shots to the abdominal region will not necessarily cause skeletal damage, and can cause death.

2. Identification of Human Remains: the process of identification of victims is a physical one. Physical or `pre-mortem’ information about the victims when they were alive (such as height, age, dental records) and `peri-mortem’ information relating to the time of their death obtained from those who witnessed their death, can be compared with exhumed skeletal remains. For example, if a certain person was witnessed to die from a shot to a particular part of the body, and a skeleton shows corresponding damage, this helps differentiate this victim’s skeleton from others in the same grave.

In cases where there are no existing dental records for victims, and no witnesses to help with precise causes of death, it is very difficult to identify bodies. Bodies exhumed from 5 Brigade camps and bodies from mine shafts would have a poor chance of positive identification, as there are no witnesses who can say with certainty who was buried where.

In the case of bodies in mass graves and burnt huts, the prospect of identification is high, as names of victims are largely known already, and deaths were witnessed. There should be good peri mortem or circumstantial evidence to confirm cause of deaths.


Forensic sciences are a group of interrelated disciplines which utilise different scientific methods to analyse physical evidence related to legal cases. When working on legal cases involving skeletal remains forensic anthropology is among the main disciplines involved. Considering the time elapsed and the condition of burial sites recently observed, forensic investigation could be useful in Zimbabwe.

Forensic anthropology consists in the application of methods and techniques from physical anthropology and forensic medicine to legal cases in which skeletal or mainly skeletonised remains are involved. It is considered a branch of physical anthropology. The physical anthropologist applies his/her knowledge about how bodies vary over time and place to a legal or forensic context.

There are several other disciplines involved in this task. In order to recover the remains in the proper way, the use of forensic archeology is crucial. This simply consists of the “application of standard archeological techniques slightly modified to meet the requirements of crime scene processing where a skeleton(s) or buried body(ies) is present.” Other skills involved are: forensic pathology, odontology, ballistics, radiology and genetics, among others.

The use of forensic anthropology in the investigation of human rights violations started in Argentina in 1984. Argentina returned to democracy in December 1983. The newly elected President Dr. Raul Alfonsin, created the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP). The Commission established that at least 10 000 people had been disappeared under the previous military regime (1976-1983). Bodies had been dumped from aeroplanes into the sea, illegally cremated or buried in anonymous graves in cemetries.

In order to ensure impartiality and expertise, a group of American forensic scientists under the leadership of Dr. Clyde Snow was assembled, and several forensic teams in South America were trained over the next ten years. These are the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Team, the Chilean Forensic Anthropology Team and the Argentinian Forensic Team.

In the USA, the Physicians for Human Rights and the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) continue to promote and assemble teams of experts for specific missions. They work internationally in interdisciplinary teams, as expert witnesses or international consultants invited by local judiciaries, or by intergovernmental bodies such as the United Nations War Tribunals and the United Nations Commissions of Inquiry, to help resolve human rights issues.

These teams of forensic anthropologists are all non governmental and non-profit making.

Since 1984, forensic anthropology has been used in investigations in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Honduras, Haiti, Mexico, The Philippines, Iraqi Kurdistan, Romania, Croatia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Ethiopia.


1. Preliminary Investigation:

i) This involves the gathering of historical information about the case under investigation, including official records, eye witness accounts etc.

ii) Pre-mortem data collection: collection of physical information about victims, such as medical and dental records, old X-rays, height etc. Peri-mortem information is also gathered, that is information on injuries sustained at the time of death.

2. Archeological Work:

The archeological approach provides a rational way to recover and reconstruct events, ensuring evidence is not damaged, recovery is complete, and that documentation is adequate.

3.Laboratory Analysis:

Using techniques from physical anthropology and medicine, it is possible to establish stature, sex, age at death, ancestry, pathologies and lesions, dental features etc of the exhumed skeletal remains.

Pre-mortem and peri-mortem data is then compared with skeletal remains to try to establish their identities. In countries where the affected populations are largely poor with little access to medical and dental check up and where there is therefore little pre-mortem data, new genetic methods involving the extraction of DNA material from remains and comparing them with DNA material from likely relatives can help identify victims.


1.The Will of Affected Communities: it is essential that no steps be taken without consultation with communities and relatives of the deceased. Some may wish for exhumation, while in adjacent areas, others may not, for cultural or personal reasons.

2. Judicial Proceedings: Exhumations should be done through the intervention of judges in order to keep a legal record of the proceedings and findings, even in situations where no legal prosecutions are to follow on findings (such as in Zimbabwe).

3.Exhumations must be professionally done: There are teams of forensic anthropologists and organisations around the world who are expert at this type of work. They have accomplished successful exhumations in several Latin American countries, and also in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Ethiopia, Rwanda, among other places.

A short exploratory mission: a first mission by an international forensic team, lasting two or three months, would ideally include different types of cases to fit the categories of human remains listed above. For example, one burnt hut and one mass grave could each be excavated. A mine shaft identified as having a high likelihood of remains could be excavated, and a 5 Brigade camp could be examined.

4.Depository for Human Remains: in cases where exhumed remains are not identified:

a.) establish a general data base in the hope that identification might ultimately be possible, and keep the remains available at a specific centre and under control.

b.) if it is not possible to keep remains unburied, do not rebury underground, but keep them in an above-ground sepulchre, so that remains will not be affected by the organic activity of the soil. If this is not possible, due to economic or cultural constraints, remains should be reburied in the hardest possible container so that they could be retrieved and re analysed if necessary.

6. Protection of the sites: sites should be protected from tampering. Those living close to sites should know who to inform if there is a sudden interest in them.

7. Establishment of a Symbolic Shrine: the existence of a place where the remains of missing or disappeared or unidentified people are buried or commemmorated has a symbolic value in many countries. Relatives of victims often express the strong need to have a place where they can remember their loved ones, pray, or follow other cultural practices of mourning. Communities in Zimbabwe may – or may not – decide after consultation that they would like to establish such a shrine, or shrines.

The establishment of such public places has, in other countries, implied a social and national recognition of what happened: in Zimbabwe, the current clandestine or “abandoned” graves do not allow for this. The lack of broader acknowledgement is apparently a source of deep disturbance for the relatives and witnesses of the tragic events.

Such a shrine would break the secrecy. The unspeakable, currently limited to secret memories, would be brought out into the realm of historical and social reality.

In summary, the process of exhuming and identifying human remains is one that should aim to show a respectful acknowledgement of events, and to commemmorate the suffering of the survivors. The process also serves as a testimony to other sectors of the population and is a reminder to future generations. The suffering of victims and survivors should also be placed in a broader social and historical arena.

REPORT ON THE 1980S DISTURBANCES IN MATABELELAND AND THE MIDLANDS Compiled by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe, March 1997