FOR 36 years, the community of Ward 5’s Enkwalini line in Tsholotsho district of Matabeleland North province has lived in the midst of graves of victims of the 1983-1987 Gukurahundi massacres without any idea about how they would conduct re-burials so as to find closure.
Nkululeko Sibanda in Tsholotsho
Efforts by the community to give the victims decent burials during former president Robert Mugabe’s era failed to yield the desired results after the Central Intelligence Organisation routinely intimidated the villagers and warned them not to dare touch the graves.
The villagers were even dissuaded from marking the areas where those who were killed by the North Korea-trained 5 Brigade lay.
Perhaps the government was hoping in vain that the failure to mark graves would result in the graves being buried with environmental changes and memory of Gukurahundi survivors fading.
Unfortunately, this episode was too ghastly to forget for villagers here. It was so horrific that some of the villagers vowed they would rather be killed than leave graves unmarked; the villagers said they were willing to die for the dead and their graves.
Almost four decades after the genocide happened across the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces, the courage to defy government orders has finally paid off for villagers in Enkwalini line as the markings they were ordered not to put on a grave of the victims have enabled the successful exhumation of two victims.
This past Sunday, the bodies of the late Justin Tshuma (32 at the time) and his wife, Thembi Ngwenya (21), who were shot and killed by 5 Brigade, were successfully exhumed by pathological experts from Bulawayo-based Ukuthula Trust.
The exhumation ceremony was witnessed by Justice Sello Nare, the chairperson of the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission, together with the Enkwalini community.
Family representatives told the Zimbabwe Independent on the scene of the re-burial they were happy that the bodies of their relatives had finally been found.
This, they said, would help them find closure and answers to questions they have had for the past 36 years.
Amon Joseph Tshuma, young brother to the late Justin Tshuma, said the family was relieved that their brother’s remains had finally been located.
“I feel like I have been liberated from some shackles. I have suffered in my heart for 36 years because I knew that it was my brother who was in that grave. We yearned for a proper burial, but there was a challenge in according him a decent burial as the political environment then did not allow us to even touch the grave,” Tshuma said.
Joseph said the subsequent decent burial which will follow the finalisation of the exhumation and examination process by Ukuthula Trust would afford the family the chance to carry out family rituals to appease his brother’s spirit.
“We were unable to talk to our brother in accordance to our family traditional beliefs. The exhumation allows us to bury him where we can be able to talk to him and ask him to guide and look after his family,” Tshuma said.
“You will realise that whenever my brother’s son had problems, I would come here and talk to him and tell him to look after his son. Now his son is also a man who has his own family and I dedicate that guidance to my brother’s spirit. He guided his son’s ways and I am happy that he has ensured that his son’s life is on the right path.”
The exhumation, he added, would finally provide catharsis and bring closure to the tragic episode.
“We had been pursuing the exhumation and re-burial of these remains; so we are happy that, finally, the chapter has been closed and we will be able to re-bury them the way we want to,” Tshuma said.
The late Thembi Ngwenya’s sister, Beatrice, told journalists she and the Ngwenya family had suffered trauma over the last 36 years following her sister’s tragic death.
“I was traumatised when I came here. As a family, we have suffered trauma to an extent that I did not believe that this exhumation was going to happen and that we would get to see the remains of these two,” Ngwenya said. “My heart is broken because of what transpired. It’s a tragedy that shall remain etched in my heart. Losing a sister in such a tragic situation is not easy.
“I am, however, happy that after 36 years, we have been able to find their remains. As a family, we have always been praying that the Almighty guides us to a point where we will be able to hold my sister’s remains in our hands as she died and was buried when we were not there.”
The discovery, exhumation and subsequent re-burial, she added, would also help give the couple’s son closure to the whole episode.
“We are also grateful that my sister’s son, Xolani, will also get to know that we have found the remains of his mother, something that has also been tormenting him a lot. We will now be able, after this is said and done, to show Xolani where his mother lies peacefully as opposed to what had happened prior to today.”
Traditional leaders who spoke to the Independent, some of them anonymously, described the exhumation as a necessary evil as the grave and many others had adversely affected peace and tranquillity in the area.
A village head said: “Some of us, if not all, believe in tradition. We believe the bones of the dead have a way of telling us to treat them in a certain manner. I can tell you that we have belief that we have not received much rain here because of those bones that lie in shallow graves.
“We believe that until and unless the remains are accorded decent burials, we will continue to have drought because, in our tradition, rain does not fall in an area where there are exposed human remains.”
While the re-burials made the Tshuma family feel relieved, this has also intensified questions about the integrity of the current Gukurahundi atrocities redressing process, with the critical questions arising over the perpetrators’ motive and sincerity, legal framework, truth-telling, justice and reparations.