“We have to first heal the dead,” Gukurahundi Exhumation Team Explains Unique Process

Gukurahundi exhumation expert Shari Eppel explained that to heal families left behind by Gukurahindi victims, a process of “healing the dead” has had to take place first. Eppel was speaking to The Standard in the Big Interview this week.

She explained that in Zimbabwe her team had to discard a healing process that people in other parts of the world go through where PTSD and depression are often identified as an issue by survivors and other family members.

She explained:

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.

Eppel is a director at Ukuthula Trust and the primary author of the often referenced CCJP report on the Matabeleland atrocities. Ukuthula Trust has been providing exhumation services for families of the victims of the Gukurahundi atrocities as well as the Second Chimurenga.

Full Interview: The Standard

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