History Monday: Gukurahundi – Human Remains Part 3

Hi this is from CCJP 1997 report on the 1980s Gukurahundi Genocide


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.


1. Nehanda Radio (2013)’Gukurahundi Massacres: Human Remains (Part 15)’

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