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Hiding the dead... a Zimbabwean mystery

Andrew Harding | 12:29 UK time, Friday, 25 March 2011

A disused mineshaft. A mass grave. Hurried exhumations. A mood of dread, suspicion, and blistering political rhetoric.

This has the makings of a very Zimbabwean murder mystery.

For many days the state-controlled media, loyal to President Robert Mugabe, has been giving saturation coverage to the exhumation of hundreds of bodies from an abandoned mine.

Zanu-PF ministers have been on hand to declare that the corpses were victims of the liberation struggle, murdered by forces of the white Rhodesian leader, Ian Smith, during the 1970s. Indigenisation Minister Saviour Kasukuwere and others have been quick to build political capital out of the gruesome site - explicitly linking the past atrocities to the alleged "pro-white" tendencies of their current rivals in the MDC.

There seems to be no doubt that the graves, and the corpses, are genuine. But the timing and handling of the "discovery" have raised suspicions in some quarters. Perhaps even more significantly, some people are starting to question the age and identity of the dead.

Are all the bodies really victims of the liberation war, or could some have been killed during the Gukurahundi massacres of the early 1980s?

Some people who have visited the site, and seen the condition of the bodies, have even suggested that some of them could be MDC activists, killed by pro-Zanu-PF gangs during the violent election campaign of 2008.

Perhaps significantly, Zanu-PF ministers now appear to be distancing themselves from the exhumations, which were carried out by an organization called the Fallen Heroes Trust - linked in numerous reports to President Mugabe's party.

A professional, independent forensic examination is presumably the only way to settle this matter.


  • Comment number 1.

    It is very unlikely that the bodies of of Gukurahundi victims. Gukurahundi victims were mostly in the Matebeleland Provinces several hundred kilometres from the exhumation site.

    Gukuruhandi killings were carried out in PF-ZAPU strongholds. Mt Darwin has always been a Zanu-PF stronghold.

    Most likely the mine shafts contain bodies of victims from different periods of time. Yes a lot could have been from the abuses by Ian Smith's forces. This is entirely plausible since Mt Darwin was one of the hottest areas, with extremely high ZANLA support and activity, during the liberation war.

    Rhodesian forces had no qualms about making people disappear as they did with Edison Sithole a prominent Harare lawyer, in the late 70s. After independence similar things happened such as the case of Rashiwe Guzha, girlfriend of a former CIO boss who disappeared without trace.

    In 2008 the modus oparendi seems to have been to simply dumb bodies by the roadside on in the the bush such as the case of MDC activist Tonderai Ndira. I think Rhodesian forces are the most likely culprits.

  • Comment number 2.

    The remarkable discovery of hundreds of bodies in mine shafts - it certainly has the imprimata of the gukurahunde massacres ... but I agree, this is unlikely to be gukurahunde. This was massive in Matabeleland, in the south of the country but not in these numbers elsewhere - unlikely to be Rhodesian either, quite simply not their M.O. - their accountability was very precise on anyone killed inside the country.

    Likely to be people who were deliberately starved in the last ten years - could be ... likely to be dissenters before previous elections - very probable ... likely to be the opposition MDC, very sadly yes. Identification of time of death and DNA is critical to put this to rest. I fear there will be more in the coming months. God help Zimbabwe - such a great place

  • Comment number 3.

    I have to agree that the timing does seem somewhat convenient. My recollection of the recent and slightly more distant past is that one of the parties have not been over-squeamish when it came to disposing of obstacles in their paths. Oh sorry, these people weren't killed in car accidents. My mistake.

    But a realistic date (or series of dates) for these bodies would be very interesting indeed. But who would belive any date published from within Zimbabwe? The only believable dates would come from outside investigators, but I don't believe that many of them have been called in...

  • Comment number 4.

    Why should the efforts of a civil society, searching its past, be politicized? What can anyone do if some groups, organized or otherwise, want to dig "political capital" out of its activities?
    The key point is that any logic is at fault if it suggests ignoring, even for a split of a second, the facts of racist aggression, conquest, enslavement, robbery and murder in Rhodesia. POLITICAL RIGHT if founded on force, often brute force, and requires violence to maintain itself, even today and now as I am writing .... Indeed, it is not necessary to call oneself a racist to be a racist,; it is simply enough to be one.
    "HABIT is Heaven´s own redress; it takes the place of HAPPINESS." A. Pushkin

  • Comment number 5.

    If there was knowledge of a huge dumping ground of murdered people kept quiet for 30+ years and only brought to light because of the fear of illegal gold digging, then something is wrong with society. If the Rhodesian forces under instruction of Smith or his Generals were guilty of mass murder then there is no reason to hide or conceal it. Over the past 10 years in Zimbabwe there has been Mugabe killing and maiming the opposition. Make your own conclusions.
    Why should those digging up the atrocities of the past ten years end up in these types of mass graves? If any mass graves are discovered, or suddenly brought to the attention of the authorities with prior knowledge, there should be proper investigations by apolitical institutes who can come to a conclusive result rather than wild accusations of who did it or more ridiculous accusations of racism with no foundation.

  • Comment number 6.

    There is no ridiculousness about racism; it is a fact of daily life, even 20 or so years after the end of settler colonialist and apartheid rules, people still must fight against. Racism is rampant all over the world and doesn't always focus on "skin color"; even in the most powerful "model" of liberal democracy; take it or leave it, nothing will change that, only a conscious and robust struggle for freedom and dignity.
    Of course racism, thanks for the hitherto struggles, it can't be blatant as it may wish to be; it must accommodate a "Black" president in the "white" house; it must use soft force and systems of co-option, buying, etc.; such attempts of self-atonement are lately mixed with brute ways, (ref. the imperialist wars unfolding), etc.,
    When I say racism of course I am not talking about subjective feelings (sharing a swimming pool downtown Bulawayo club) ; I am talking about a malignant cancer like social construct built into the system of society we live in,...somebody calls it "global apartheid." Thus no adjustments, no universal thoughts can explain the unique experiences of the war for liberations from racist rule, this imposition of categories of superiors and inferiors human beings, which are beyond material well-being. It is difficult, even impossible, to denounce a system of thought and rule, if one is part of it.

  • Comment number 7.

    I take it you use racist to cover tribalism, the underinvestment by government in Matabeleland, the creation of China Towns, the failed multiculturalism in Europe. Is indigenisation only another form of racism in todays society?

  • Comment number 8.

    Silent Witness or Waking the Dead?

  • Comment number 9.

  • Comment number 10.

    I think the victims could be a combination of all three: Ian SMith's regime, Gukurahundi massacres and Zanu PF victims all dumped in that location. Either way an independent non baised forensic examination is in order

  • Comment number 11.

    Reading through some of the local websites Andrew provided, it is safe to say that many Zimbabweans (who commented on the stories) questioned the timing of ths discoveries. Someone wrote "These are MDC activists who were killed in 2008 and dumped in that mine. If the government knew of this place in the 1980s,why didn`t they exhume them then when the government was in a better financial position than now?"

    And some bodies seem to be fairly freah i.e. dripping liquid and not decomposed like the others which can only suggest that they were recently dumped there possibly in the 2008 violence. That is why an idependent forensic examination is needed urgently

  • Comment number 12.

    I grew up within sight of Mount Darwin on the Rhodesian side during the Bush War. There were numerous skirmishes in the between ZANLA (Mugabe) insurgents and Rhodesian security forces (primarily RLI and RAR fireforce - helicopter and dakota-borne troops), with ZANLA inevitably coming off dramatically worse - I would imagine several thousand were killed in the area during Operation Hurricane (1972-1976) with relatively few casualties amongst the highly trained and motivated Rhodesian troops. The standard method of disposal of the bodies was to sling them in a net under a helicopter and dump them down a mineshaft (for health reasons). (There were dozens of old mine workings in the area and requests were made for use of old workings as specific dump locations filled up). It is highly likely that these bodies will primarily be ZANLA, from the bush war, but could include civilian camp followers who would be meticulously accounted for in sitreps as having been killed while "running with and actively assisting terrorists"

  • Comment number 13.

    I think madzi79's comment is the most accurate and least speculative of all the comments, including Mr Harding's own.

  • Comment number 14.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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