SPT-Zimbabwe Update No.2. March 2011: The Silencing of the Bones

SPT - Zimbabwe UpdateOver the last few days, I have watched, listened to, and read with growing horror and dismay, about events unfolding in Mount Darwin, Zimbabwe, where human remains are currently being hauled out of mine shafts by completely unqualified individuals. I have examined with great sadness, photographs of dishevelled piles of skulls, long bones and other indiscriminately exhumed human remains.

There are 206 bones in each human body – each hand has 27 bones and each foot has 26, meaning half of our bones are in our hands and feet – does the average war veteran currently hurling around the dead in Mount Darwin know this, or care? What is happening to all those delicate wrist and hand bones, in the chaos that is going on?

Does the average Mount Darwin exhumer understand that in order to age, or sex, a set of human remains, they need to be complete – an expert will consider various indicators on a human skull, pelvis, long bones and a particular rib, before drawing a probable conclusion on whether the deceased is male, or female, and 18 years or 65 years old. Knowing that the majority of people in a particular site are of a certain age and sex, for example, could help unravel the circumstances of their deaths. But this opportunity has already been largely taken away by the fact that it is not possible to be sure which bones make up which person at this stage.

An expert forensic anthropolist will be able to tell you not only that a certain set of remains is a woman, but will be able to tell you whether she was pregnant or not at the time of murder, and whether she gave birth during her life time. An expert will be able to tell you that a particular man was 1m 78cm tall when alive, that he was left handed, and that he broke his leg as a child. In short, an expert can give an unusual voice to the dead – can return identity and life experiences to an otherwise silent pile of bones.

Bodies decay in different ways and at different rates depending on the circumstances of the site. There is talk at the moment of apparent soft tissues on some of the bones – but this is not necessarily an indicator that these bones entered the grave more recently, although it could be. A process of mummification can occur when bodies are piled in such massive numbers one upon another, and to all but the most expert of eyes, mummified flesh will look the same as rotting soft tissues from a more recent era.

A forensic anthropologist can very often identify precise cause of death, even decades later, and can also identify era of death. The latter is very often identified by personal effects either in the pockets or in the vicinity of the bones in the original burial site – coins, ID documents or situpas, litter indicative of products that were made during a certain era only – these items can help date the moment in which the body entered the site, to within a few years at least. Totems to fend off death, commonly worn by ex combatants, could be indicators of who these dead are – and there could well be particular amulets, or types of equipment or clothing, that could help solve the riddle of whether these dead are ZIPRA or ZANLA, in the event of them being combatants and not civilians. And personal effects, such as wedding rings, distinctive cigarette lighters, or even a particular pair of shoes or belt buckle, could help distinguish Peter from Paul. But for this to be possible, extensive interviews with possible relatives of the deceased have to take place – preferably prior to exhuming – and relatives ought to be consulted and involved at every step of the way, to ensure that the process of exhumation is done in a way that respects their wishes and cultural needs.

I have seen personally, how exhumations can result in healing of individuals and communities. I have heard the bones speak, as a result of experts listening very carefully to what they are trying to say. I have seen the voices of bones giving back the historical past to their families and villages – indeed, giving themselves back with definite identities, to be buried where they are supposed to lie, so that at long last, after decades of silence, their spirits can rest in peace – and the living, that have mourned them for so long, can have closure.

What is happening in Mount Darwin is a travesty – the dead are being forever silenced by the disrespectful way in which they are being treated right now. These bones were once human beings, people who apparently died brutally. It is an abdication of responsibility for the government to simply say – we are not involved so far.

Yes, Zimbabwe desperately needs exhumations, most likely in every province of the country – but there are experts in the world who are ready and willing to help, if invited, such as the Argentinean Forensic Anthropology Team, who have exhumed in more than 20 countries around the world and who have thirty years experience in expertly giving a voice to the dead. Before the voices of the Mount Darwin dead are irretrievably lost, we need to call a halt to what is happening there and seek expert help. Bones speak quietly and in a language only an expert can hear – let’s not silence them forever, but bring them the help they need to be heard.

Please cite this article as follows: Eppel, S. (2011) ‘SPT-Zimbabwe Update No.2. March 2011: The Silencing of the Bones’, 24 March, Solidarity Peace Trust: http://www.solidaritypeacetrust.org/1004/spt-zimbabwe-update-no-2/

Thu, March 24 2011 » Conflict resolution, History, Human rights, Zimbabwe Update

One Response

  1. tony reeler March 24 2011 @ 3:10 pm

    Thank you for this. This is, as you rightly point out, a travesty of the highest order. Not merely because it violates every notion of good forensic work, but more importantly violates the rights of the dead and their families so dreadfully

Leave a Reply