“Healing the dead”: exhumation and reburial as a tool to truth telling and reclaiming the past in rural Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe is a nation whose last one hundred years of official history and policy stand as an example of how to ensure that truth and peace do not prevail.

During the last three decades in particular, there has never been a period of sustained peace or genuine reconciliation to the past. We are a nation with a history of unresolved conflicts, including racism rooted in colonialism, and ethnic conflict, which predated and was intentionally exacerbated by colonialism. We are a nation with a poor tolerance of political diversity and a leadership that is committed to never leaving power voluntarily. In the last 40 years, this country has had only two political leaders – Ian Smith, from 1964 until 1979, and Robert Mugabe – from 1980 until the present. Both leaders have ruled more or less in the context of a one party state, and have become embroiled in civil wars to destroy legitimate alternative political voices.

Political repression has been compounded throughout the decades by a pattern of unjust laws and impunity for perpetrators.  Sadly, in the post-colonial peace accord era that began in April 1980, there was no concerted, formalised attempt to allow truth telling or to promote reconciliation between the three warring parties – ZANU, ZAPU and the Rhodesians . There was also no comprehensive attempt to repeal laws infringing civil liberties. Zimbabwe remained, in fact, in a State of Emergency from 1965 until 1990, with all the super-legal powers to state officials that this entails.

Since 1979, we have had no fewer than five blanket amnesties, benefiting most on every occasion, those who perpetrated crimes against their fellow Zimbabweans on behalf of the government of the day . There were amnesties in 1979 and 1980, which benefited predominantly Rhodesian army members, but also pardoned crimes by ZIPRA and ZANLA. Further amnesties in 1988, 1995 and most recently October 2000 have pardoned predominantly Zimbabwe army, police and those acting in the state’s interests, such as “war veterans”.

The 1988 pardon made the Zimbabwean army unit, the 5 Brigade, unanswerable for the estimated 10-20,000 Ndebeles they massacred during a regional civil war from 1982 to 1987, which effectively achieved its aim of destroying ZAPU as a separate political entity. In December 1987, the leaders of ZANU and ZAPU signed the “Unity Accord”, in which ZAPU was absorbed into ZANU.  The general amnesty of 1988 also pardoned a handful of dissidents for their approximately 300 murders .

The 1995 and 2000 amnesties again pardoned mostly ruling party supporters from acts of violence carried out against those perceived not to support ZANU, in the context of the general elections that took place in those years . De facto impunity since October 2000 remains a feature of the political scene, once more ensuring no prosecutions of state officials/supporters for violence against the opposition.

Furthermore, recent years have seen the enactment of some of the most repressive legislation in the nation’s history. These include the draconian Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), both passed during 2002. It is no coincidence that the latest round of repression occurs at the same time as the first meaningful political opposition since 1988 has gained majority support in Zimbabwe – the Movement for Democratic Change. The new laws are aimed at undermining civil society, political opposition and the voice of the independent media.

We currently endure a low grade civil war that has not cost many lives, but has resulted in the internal displacement of around 500,000 Zimbabweans, an inflation rate of 700%, an unemployment rate of 80% and now a food deficit leaving 50% of the population facing starvation for the second year running. Human rights organisations in Zimbabwe have documented around 60,000 victims of human rights violations in the past three years, with around 90% of violations perpetrated by the ZANU government and their supporters; close to nil prosecutions have resulted. Politically selective starvation is our government’s latest weapon: members of the political opposition have been denied access to food, including their infants.

Truth telling in times of transition or peri-peace accord situations

We have been through two post accord periods now, in 1980 and again in 1988; yet Zimbabwe, after two civil wars is embroiled once more in a cycle of state orchestrated violence and denial, and seems to have learnt very little at the official, national level, in terms of accountability, or of truth telling and peace-building.

The work of the current author could be found by some not to belong in a volume that concentrates primarily on post peace accord interventions and peace building. However, it is reasonable to at least hope that Zimbabwe in late 2003 is in a peri-peace accord situation. Furthermore, this author would believe that the type of information that civil society places in the public domain at this time is crucial, not only for future planning, but even to enhance the likelihood of a peace accord falling into place, and also in order to influence the terms of that accord. The Zimbabwean government has enacted laws and enforced state repression to make access to the “truth” almost impossible on a daily basis within and without Zimbabwe. Yet the international community and policy makers in particular need to know what is happening in order to perceive the urgency of bringing Mugabe and his cohorts to book. Truth telling is therefore vital at this historical moment, and great creativity is needed to find that space both within and without the nation. This is not without its practical, moral and personal risks, not only for those who author “subversive” work – Amani Trust in Matabeleland that pioneered the work discussed in this chapter, was forced to close after being referred to in Parliament as “illegal” in late 2002. Also very vulnerable are the rural victims who tell the stories that are the basis of the work written up here. [Full document available below]

“Healing the dead”: exhumation and reburial as a tool to truth telling and  reclaiming the past in rural Zimbabwe
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Wed, September 13 2006 » Conflict resolution, Essays, History, Transitional justice

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