History Monday: Gukurahundi – Human Remains Part 5

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



Forensic sciences are a group of interrelated disciplines which utilize different scientific methods to analyze 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 skeleton 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, ontology, 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 planes into the sea, illegally cremated or buried in anonymous graves in cemeteries.

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, pathology 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 organizations 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 center and under control.

b.) if it is not possible to keep remains unburied, do not rebury underground, but keep them in an above-ground sepulcher, 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 analyzed 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 commemorated 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 commemorate 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.

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

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