The false choice between reburials and justice for the Gukurahundi victims

The false choice between reburials and justice for the Gukurahundi victims
epa07514176 Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, centre, inspects a guard of honour at the National Sports Stadium in Harare, Zimbabwe, 18 April 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Aaron Ufumeli)

The promise by Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa that victims of the Gukurahundi massacres in Matabeleland will be reburied is the first official acknowledgement that the killings took place. But families of victims should not be in a hurry – the killings were a crime against humanity, Mnangagwa was involved in the planning of the Gukurahundi, and evidence must be preserved.

Human beings have been burying their dead since the beginning of time. Every society around the world places significance in how it buries its dead, African societies no less. There are many reasons, including the need to protect the corpse from violation by natural elements, belief systems that see death as not the end but a transition from the physical to the spiritual realm, and the management of biological decomposition of the dead.

When a death occurs in a typical Zimbabwean family, the grief it triggers is often accompanied by a simultaneous mobilisation for the burial which must by every means be decent and culturally appropriate.

One of the most profound legacies of the Gukurahundi atrocities is the proliferation of mass graves throughout Matabeleland and the Midlands. Whilst it cannot be said exactly how many people are buried in shallow and mass graves, estimates are that up to 20,000 people were killed by the Gukurahundi between 1983 and 1987.

The debate about the reburial of Gukurahundi victims triggered by President Emerson Mnangagwa’s commitment to the reburial of victims has generated controversy and serious differences of opinion in Matabeleland and beyond.

There are at least three types of mass graves. First, there are those prevalent in Matabeleland North where the 5th Brigade began its operation in February 1983. Many of the victims were murdered in their homes and buried in mass graves by villagers on the instruction of the 5th Brigade. In other cases, individuals or groups of people were killed in a systematic manner after being seized or abducted from their homes and from buses by the 5th Brigade and Central Intelligence operatives and “disappeared”. Many were killed and buried in unmarked graves.

In Matabeleland South, where the 5th Brigade was deployed in late 1983, the tactics were different. In response to the public backlash from Matabeleland North, the 5th Brigade adapted its tactics by setting up a main camp at Bhalagwe, from where it raided villages, detaining thousands of people in the camp where many were tortured and killed and subsequently thrown into mine shafts or buried in shallow graves. Survivors from Bhalagwe speak of army trucks full of bodies transporting dead bodies from the camp on a daily basis.

In instances where the killings occurred in their presence, relatives were forced to bury victims in mass graves at the time of their death and warned against reburying them. In other instances, they have no idea where their relatives were buried after they were abducted from their villages.

Many families of the murdered victims have lived for decades with the agony of not having provided proper burials for their relatives, burials that are consistent with family and cultural rituals to ensure their proper transition to the ancestral realm. In addition, the violent manner of the death of victims is expected to have left the spirit of victims roaming, unsettled and unavenged.

This is expected in African belief systems to have had a profound impact on the living descendants of the victims as well as the perpetrators of their deaths and their descendants. The burden on surviving families of victims over the past three decades has been profound. As belief systems go, it would have impacted on the fortunes of entire families (of both victims and perpetrators), ruptured cohesion between the physical and spiritual realms in families and left a sense of fear, despair, helplessness and guilt.

Compounding this challenge has been the enduring inability to secure any official acknowledgement, justice, accountability or apology from perpetrators. At the same time, some perpetrators have acknowledged that as a result of their actions, “ongoing” or avenging spirits have affected them, their families and descendants, with some seeking recompense with families of their Gukurahundi victims.

The opportunity to rebury their relatives after so many years has brought the possibility of closure for families of victims. At the same time, it has ignited a fierce debate about the appropriateness of burials of victims of violent deaths, absent any accountability from perpetrators of their deaths. The tension between whether the act of reburial of victims is distinct from the accountability of perpetrators – essentially the reburial-justice nexus – characterises the current debate.

The reburial-justice nexus also has a basis in African custom. In many traditional societies, a perpetrator of death is expected to make amends before and as a pre-condition for the reburial. In extreme cases, prevalent in Shona custom and cosmology, families have been known to refuse to bury their relatives unless and until their killers own up and account for their crimes. The concept of “ngozi” requires that once “ngozi” is committed, it has to be redeemed in order for restorative justice to occur between individuals, families and society. The notion that a person who causes the death of another must atone for his actions as an antidote to the avenging spirit of the deceased, is rooted in this custom.

For families of victims, the choice between burying their loved ones and seeking justice and accountability is a non-existent one. In view of the cultural and traditional imperatives, burying the dead is a necessity devoid of any other consideration including justice.

It has always been inconceivable that a family will refuse or fail to bury its relative indefinitely as a ransom for justice. In the case of Gukurahundi victims, it is most likely that had the Gukurahundi not prevented the families from burying their dead, they would have buried them at the time of their death 30 years ago.

As stated earlier, many of the hurried and mass burials were on instructions of the killers denying people the opportunity to follow proper burial rituals. However, families’ desire to bury their relatives does not mean that they do not want justice.

For decades, families have been denied justice for the death of their loved ones. Many of them were forced to witness the brutal deaths of their loved ones by Gukurahundi. Many were forced to dig the graves immediately after the killings and to conduct the rushed and indecent burials.

Many report that a common trend was for the Gukurahundi to make them dance on the graves and sing songs all night.

In many other instances, they were forced to dig the graves before the killings actually occurred. Some victims were even buried alive.

Most of the families know the people who came to their homes and either abducted or killed their loved ones. They would be able to identify them if provided the opportunity. In many instances, the same perpetrators operated in an area for a period and their methods of serial torture and killing were distinct. In many other cases, the names of the killers are known.

The perpetrators have neither apologised, nor acknowledged any responsibility for their actions. Instead, families have continued to be subjected to fear, continued intimidation and reminders of the unspeakable and horrendous crimes and the real threat that they, too, may be killed.

To add salt to injury, they have been denied the opportunity to even speak about their loss and pain. They have endured the agony of living alongside mass graves and their own inability to do right by their deceased relatives.

So to argue that all families want is to bury their loved ones and move on is essentially a self-serving argument proffered by perpetrators hell-bent on reburying the crimes the second time.

The unlawful killing of one human being by another is classified in criminal law as murder. Murder is not a private matter to be settled between individuals without state involvement. When a murder occurs, the societal interest is affected, not just the individual.

When mass murder occurs, all of humanity is affected. A crime against humanity is a widespread and systematic attack against a civilian population. Crimes against humanity include genocide, mass murder, torture, degrading and inhumane treatment, rape, pillaging, and deportation. They are so serious and heinous in the manner of their perpetration, their scale and impact, that they concern the whole of humanity.

They are universally prohibited international crimes and perpetrators considered criminally pursuable irrespective of their position, nationality, sovereignty and location.

There is little argument that Gukurahundi constituted crimes against humanity. The sheer scale, number of victims, forms of perpetration, and impact on the victims and society are a testimony to this characterisation. For this reason, accountability for these crimes transcends the personal interests of victims, their families and the perpetrators.

Like ordinary national crimes, it is unacceptable for a perpetrator to negotiate and resolve a murder between themselves without the involvement of the state. With higher level crimes against humanity, their accountability is the business not just of sovereign states but also of the global community.

For this reason, once a crime against humanity occurs, its resolution cannot be restricted or limited to the perpetrator and the victim. In the case of reburial of Gukurahundi victims, while recognising the imperative for families to bury their relatives after so many years, the scale and nature of Gukurahundi are such that accountability for these heinous crimes is a matter of national and international interest.

The effort to rush exhumations and reburials by Mnangagwa, himself an alleged perpetrator (he was Minister of State Security and a key player in the planning and execution of the Gukurahundi) is clearly flawed and negates the imperative to simultaneously achieve accountability and justice. The mass graves littered around Matabeleland and Midlands are crime scenes and contain evidence of Gukurahundi crimes. Hurried reburials, unaccompanied by documentation, justice and accountability measures are the antithesis of justice and accountability.

While the offer by Mnangagwa to resolve the Gukurahundi issue is unprecedented coming from the regime that for years has refused to acknowledge its role in these crimes, the proposed resolution is likely to result in the evasion of justice and accountability.

Whether this is by design or inadvertent is unclear. In order for a meaningful resolution of the Gukurahundi that enables the simultaneous closure for families who wish to bury their relatives, and the attainment of justice for both the victims and perpetrators of the crimes, the reburial process must be linked to a justice and accountability process.

For this to happen, a comprehensive, systematic and consistent process for justice, accountability and closure must be developed. Reburials must be a part of this comprehensive process, not a standalone initiative. This is especially important because, once exhumed, the evidence of the Gukurahundi crime is gone – and with it any possibility of properly documenting the crime, attaining justice and holding perpetrators accountable.

Even in the case of reburials, the exhumations that precede them must be done professionally and pursuant to internationally-accepted standards that properly record or document the crimes, safeguard the remains, identify the cause of death and essentially facilitate justice for victims.

The nature and form of justice and accountability will need to be articulated and accepted by victims, not just by the perpetrators. In many other countries where this has been done, justice and accountability have taken the form of truth-telling, acknowledgement, apologies, compensation and restitution. In other cases, criminal responsibility has been pursued.

Zimbabweans will have to choose a path that allows them to move forward, taking into account the multiple interests and actors. The trade-offs, if any, should form part of the engagement with victims on their notions of what is required to achieve real justice and closure.

Families of Gukurahundi victims face a difficult conundrum.

On the one hand, whether to seize the opportunity provided by Mnangagwa to properly bury their loved ones after decades of wanting and needing to do so and thereby enable their restive spirits to pass on to the next realm.

On the other hand, whether and how to prioritise justice for the same relatives for whom the mass graves are the very last voice of the crimes against them and their clamour for justice and accountability.

They must not be made to choose between the two just so that perpetrators escape culpability. DM

Siphosami Malunga is the executive director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA). This article was first published by the Zimbabwe Independent.


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