This is the third in a series of a document on submissions made by chiefs from Matabeleland and Midlands provinces to President Emmerson Mnangagwa on the occasion of his meeting with them at the State House in Bulawayo on June 28, 2019.
Your Excellency, in its work the truth body should invite, hear and subpoena state and non-state witnesses and failure to comply with its instructions should attract the most serious consequences. Those who do not make a full disclosure or perjure themselves or deliberately provide misleading information before the truth body should be prosecuted without fear or favour. Truth is important for the future.
The late Kofi Annan (former UN Secretary-General) had this to say about the utility of truth commissions: “They can establish the facts about past crimes, they can give victims a voice and a claim of effective redress; they can establish an authoritative narrative of the past; and they can propose measures to avoid the recurrence of human rights abuses. The last point is especially important, but frequently overlooked”.
Writing in the ILSA Journal of International and Comparative Law (Vol. 4:415), Angelika Schlunk, a German legal expert and researcher on human rights, says “(A)cknowledgment is finally the first step to reconciliation. It is the key to the healing process …”
It is extremely important that upfront the truth body should be required to conduct its job, including interviews in public and the public broadcaster, television radio, and online, should provide live coverage of testimonies. Notwithstanding the need to conduct its business in an open manner, the truth body should be allowed to take reasonable measures to protect the identity of witnesses where this is deemed to be in the best interests of the victims and survivors.
1.3 Release previous reports
The government should release, without any delay, both the Chihambakwe and Dumbutshena commission reports as part of truth telling and acknowledgment. The release of these documents will demonstrate good faith on the part of government and encourage all sides to the reconciliation table while building confidence in the process.
Also, these contemporaneous reports are critical in informing the truth-seeking body as it goes about doing its work. Keeping these documents away from victims and constitutional and legal bodies that need them for effective redress of Gukurahundi atrocities gives an impression that government is not at all serious in finding a lasting solution and closure.
Most importantly, releasing these reports is also a way of allowing those who have died but who were there at the time of the commission of the atrocities to speak out and tell their story through the reports. It allows them to participate from their graves and contribute to justice, healing and reconciliation posthumously. Let the dead speak on their own behalf. Their voices are in the Chihambakwe and Dumbutshena reports.
Since so many people were disappeared and the likelihood of ever finding their burial places is near impossible, it is necessary for government to assist or allow those with resources to construct memorials (such as walls of remembrance or shrines) at suitable places to be identified by communities to commemorate the victims and survivors of Gukurahundi atrocities. For those families who will never find the graves of their loved ones and per our culture, they will need such symbolic focal places to which they can go to invoke the spirits of their deceased.
At a wall of remembrance, families can display their names, and take comfort in the knowledge that their names shall never be forgotten. Following the example of Rwanda, we as chiefs would like to see places like Bhalagwe turned into memorial museums with a Tomb of an Unknown Victim.
1.5 Localised healing processes
Although we all come from the same region, our cultures and practices differ at some crucial points, as such, we recommend that communities carry out rituals and healing processes that are meaningful to them and are more likely to aid closure. It is in the same spirit (recognising the need for legal processes) that we request, that police and other state agents, be as invisible as possible when it comes to exhumations and reburials.
While the police might need to be present to oversee the exhumation exercises, their presence and behaviour must not bring fear to family members, otherwise we lose the healing element and only re-traumatise them. Their sensitivity during such processes is a prerequisite.
1.6 Exhumations and reburials
Your Excellency, thousands of victims of Gukurahundi still lie in shallow graves, disused mines and open pits. In our traditional religious beliefs you cannot proceed with your life without problems unless you have given a decent burial and conducted all the cultural rituals, including cleansing ceremonies, on the dead.
Close relatives of the victim who did not receive a proper burial and/or on whom no cleansing ceremonies have taken place may experience problems in marital affairs, education, health and other aspects of their lives.
There is no way healing and closure can ever take place under these circumstances. What do we do with the bodies of those who lie in open pits and other grave sites?
Deciding what to do with victims who have not received proper burials requires us to balance many factors, including the interests of justice and what relatives of victims want. A one-size-fits-all approach might not work. Whatever options are taken, the greatest interests of the victims and survivors must be served.
Do we exhume or not?
In the ordinary course of events, in our African culture and traditions we do not exhume bodies. We do not disturb the departed regardless of the circumstances of their death. Instead, once a grave has been located or identified, we recognise it through appropriate rituals. Having said this, we do acknowledge that things have changed and individuals concerned might want to do it differently. We acknowledge that facts as operating in past cultural settings where victims were known will be different to a situation where the identity of remains is unknown or where there are multiple bodies within one grave.
Under the circumstances the identity of the remains cannot be ascertained unless an exhumation takes place to facilitate scientific identification. We also acknowledge that the scale of Gukurahundi atrocities may require us to take a relook at our cultural position of not exhuming those who have passed on. In mass atrocity instances, first, exhumations and reburials act as a tool for dignifying the dead (“dignification”), for closure and for truth to counter denials and vindicate and corroborate the stories and memories of victims and survivors.
Secondly, exhumations are important to give the dead a voice to tell us how and when they died. Thirdly, exhumations are important to establish facts about what happened and build a verifiable and evidence-based understanding of the scale of atrocities. Fourth and most importantly, in situations where you have mass graves or some graves with unknown victims, exhumations and reburials are necessary to ascertain the identity of victims and connect the victim back with relatives. In this instance, without exhumations and reburials the process of healing and reconciliation may not be complete. Where this is the case, victims and survivors have a right to want it done differently and have exhumations and reburials for their relatives conducted. We are fine with that.
Be that as it may, the question is then how should exhumations and reburials be conducted where they are elected as the best option? Handling exhumations and reburials requires a lot of scientific and cultural expertise and should be orderly and correctly handled to serve the purpose for which they are meant. Exhumations and reburials should not only meet international forensic standards and protocols but most importantly must meet the cultural standards of the community and the peculiar needs, wishes, interests and choices of grieving households. There are four pillars that should sustain this exercise.
First, chiefs must be there to represent the community and co-ordinate the cultural aspects of the exhumations and reburials. Second, the church and traditional healers, as the case may be, must be there as will be deemed appropriate according to the religious choices of the close relatives. Third, the actual and physical exhumations and identity confirmation should be done by an independent and impartial forensic body with relevant experience and skills set and the integrity of forensic information should be protected and preserved in a place where it is not only safe but where it can be readily accessed if need be.
Lastly, and probably most importantly, we must have a dedicated team of psychosocial counselling persons to assist the community and grieving families handle the trauma of reliving the Gukurahundi atrocities.
This is a huge task that should be handled with great care, skill and appropriate behaviour. For without this we run the risk of worsening the pain of those concerned. We may end up exhuming wrong people and allocating them to wrong families for reburial. The consequences will be devastating.
State-funded exhumations and reburials, just like memorial monuments, medical attention and education support, constitute an important measure of acknowledgment.
Whether or not exhumations and reburials should take place should be determined by victims and survivors. Government should stay away from such decisions.
1.7 Identity documents
The undertaking by government to issue birth and death certificates and other identification documents to victims and survivors of Gukurahundi is welcome. We, however, want to add that this has to be a village-level outreach exercise, otherwise poverty and fear will prevent people from utilising the opportunity. Also it is important that accurate information should be recorded in death certificates.
1.8 Medical support for victims
Your Excellency, again we welcome government’s undertaking on this one. It must be stated at the outset that there are many people alive today who sustained physical, mental and psychological harm, impairment and incapacitation directly attributable to the acts or omissions of those who were responsible for the Gukurahundi atrocities. Therefore, definitely there are many people who need medical support for health problems sustained as a result of Gukurahundi atrocities.
Many people lost their teeth, eye sights, hearing and limbs and suffered tremendous emotional and psychological injuries. Still many more cannot have children because of the torture they suffered in the hands of perpetrators. Therefore wheelchairs, walking crutches, hearing and eyesight aids, and artificial limbs, among other things, are needed. Some will need surgical operations to remove bullets and other objects still lodged in their bodies. Others need counselling therapy.
1.9 Victims of rape, sexual crimes
Probably this is the most under-reported aspect of Gukurahundi atrocities. Many women were raped and gave birth to children as a result. These women and their families have had to endure the stigma and neglect for almost four decades. We have spoken a lot about those who were killed, less about those who were tortured and disappeared, but virtually nothing about women who were raped and the children they gave birth to as a consequence. This must change. This aspect must be at centre of the resolution of the Gukurahundi issues.
Undoing the pain and its lingering effects should without question give rise to reparations of various forms. The activities of Gukurahundi directly caused deaths, rapes, disappearances and gross human rights violations at individual, household and community levels. Households lost property and bread winners and income. Communities lost able bodied individuals who were contributing to the economic wellbeing of society. The result of all this was poor or no access to education and other developmental tools.
There is therefore a need for reparations at individual, household and community levels at the scale and nature to be determined by a truth body. Reparations can and do take many forms. They can be monetary, developmental interventions, building of schools, hospitals, roads and bridges, and return of property or compensation for its loss, among others. Whatever the reparations package, the most important thing is to ensure that it is crafted in full consultation with victims and survivors. Women’s groups and children’s organisations must be given prominence in this and all other phases of the healing and reconciliation.
As part of reparations, a Reconstruction Fund should be set up to fast-track the economic reconstruction of the affected areas.
It is also important to emphasise that when it comes to reparations, compensation should also cover losses and injuries due to actions of actors like dissidents, whoever they were.
1.11 A day of mourning, truth finding
In one of the cruellest conduct ever by government, for over three decades now victims and survivors have been denied the right to properly mourn the departed. This is despite the fact that mourning the dead is critical to closure and healing. Therefore government should put in place the necessary political and legal environment so that survivors and victims can enjoy freedom of expression and freely mourn their dead and disappeared without any harassment.
Mourning takes place in many forms and therefore victims should be allowed to mourn in the manner of their choosing and as they see fitting, including through art, theatre, poems, song and what have you. The legal and political environment should allow for all these choices. Victims should be free to choose the day on which they want to collectively mourn and all what the government can do is to recognise that day and where necessary help with logistics.
We propose an official Day of Remembrance. Victims and survivors and witnesses who participate in helping find the truth must be fully protected. A thorough witness protection programme should be put in place. No reconciliation and healing can ever occur if survivors and victims are still being prevented from mourning their dead and expressing themselves without fear of persecution or participating in the truth finding exercise. As author NK Jemisin asked: “Reconciliation is a part of the healing process, but how can there be healing when the wounds are still being inflicted?”
To be continued next week.
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