History Monday: Gukurahundi – Human Remains Part 4

Hi, this is from Nehanda Radio and the 1997 CCJP report and a continuation from last History Monday


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 summarize 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 burning” 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 burning, it may well be that not all, or even none, of the skeletons will show signs of burning. However, some hut burning 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.


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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s