Zimbabwe: When Exhuming Fallen Heroes Remains Becomes a Calling

opinion

At mid-morning the sun rises imperceptibly and fluffy grass heads shed off dew, leaving them bristle with a golden hue.

Tinder dry tree leaves crack under the boots of all shapes and sizes as people converge at a disused mine shaft.

Disturbed and agitated termites dash in and out of their hovels in disgust and comprehensive confusion. They sense an invasion of monstrous proportions and for war, they prepare.

These people are on a mission. The termites release a warning odour, but who cares? Suddenly a sombre atmosphere engulfs and the smell of death and everything spiritual takes over.

The women, men and youth explode into revolutionary song and dance, and at this time, the aura of war-time night vigils wafts and sets in.

A huge man, wearing no protective clothing goes into a trance and demands to be lowered into the shaft.

A policeman also offers to be lowered into the shaft. A third person, a mining engineer also offers. A bucket is used and one by one, they are lowered into the disused mine.

Outside, song and dance do not stop. The shifting tapestry of claps, a cross-rhythm of drumbeats and hard lyrics, raise ire. Bile!

Tuft after tuft of grass dies as people take to the dance floor and so do the termites die in their numbers. Only the lucky, among the termites, scamper for cover underground. The rest die from the boots under the weight of the dancers.

After minutes of anticipation, the huge man emerges from underground, jumps off the buckets in staggering gait. Still in trance, eyes blood shots and sweating, he leaves everyone awestruck.

The drumbeat and singing die, abruptly. Everyone turns to listen.

He confirms there are remains of hundreds of ex-combatants, war collaborators and villagers killed and stashed in by Rhodesia forces.

He gives cell numbers for three relatives of some of the deceased. This shocks everyone, for, there were no cellphones during the war.

"Three of the comrades want to be reburied at their rural homes. They gave me these cell numbers of their relatives. Please contact them now," she shouts, much to the shock of everyone.

For Cde Anyway Chinyani, the chief exhumer of the Fallen Heroes Trust, exhuming remains of combatants, war collaborators and villagers who died at war is his calling.

"I have so far accounted for 6 700 bodies that I have exhumed, throughout the country and outside Zimbabwe. I am not stopping any time soon until every mass grave is accounted for. This is my calling.

"These gallant sons and daughters of Zimbabwe deserve a decent burial. They died for this country and while we enjoy the fruits of their blood, we should not forget to give them a decent burial. At least a decent burial," he says.

Born in the then Chiweshe Tribal Trust Lands in Rhodesia in 1962, (now Chiweshe communal lands). Cde Chinyani became a war collaborator at the height of the struggle.

"We were told that the Rhodesian government would come and collect all boys and girls of our age for call up. Call up that time was forced military operation by the Rhodesian army for all youths. So, we left home and started working with freedom fighters. I was hardly 15 then," he says.

At independence in 1980, Cde Chinyani continued working with former freedom fighters and when the project to exhume fallen heroes started after independence he started working, understudying many others until he became the chief exhumer.

"Exhumation is an art. I did not go to school to learn it. It is a calling. Each time I try to use protective clothing, they get burnt off or torn immediately, so I use my bare hands. The white Rhodesians used a lot of gases and acids to kill our people and they still have effects to others when we get down the shafts or mass graves, but they have no effect on me."

His exhumation escapades which include reconstruction of bodies are spiritually inspired.

"I am a prophet of the United African Apostolic Church and I am protected by God and the spirit mediums. I have been involved in the exhumation of 6 700 bodies in areas like Mt Darwin, Rusape, Rushinga and Mozambique.

"At times visions of mass graves come in my dreams. Fallen heroes talk to me in my sleep and point their graves to me. Some give me cell numbers of their relatives. Others give me, in that sleep, names of relatives and villages where they came from and relatives to contact.

"They want decent burial. They deserve it," he says.

Cde Chinyani, who is a farmer in Matepatepa, Bindura in Mashonaland Central, says at times he abandons his two wives and eight children to undertake exhumations.

"When time comes I just find myself packing by bags and leaving my tobacco, maize and soya bean crops and even my two wives and children to go and exhume some remains.

"That has become my life. It is a commitment. At one stage I was called by Cde Monica Mutsvangwa, when she was still the Minister of Provincial Affairs in Manicaland to investigate a disused mine shaft. I went in with a policeman and an engineer.

"When we came out, I had names and cellphone numbers of relatives of some of the deceased. The deceased gave me.

"They were contacted and confirmed their relatives had not gone back home after the war," he says.

His is certainly a tall order, but so far so good, in that he is determined to put finality and closure on the lives of gallant sons and daughters who died in the liberation struggle. But with many still lying unburied in the mass graves, in the valleys and indeed in mineshafts, a lot still needs to be done. There is still a lot of work which needs coordination form all and sundry.

There is need for a pronounced policy on exhumations and reburial of fallen heroes to give the Fallen Heroes Trust the much needed wheels and energy to exhume more remains.

"I will not rest until everyone who died during the war is given decent burial.

"Many mass graves have been identified and it is work in progress. God and the ancestors willing, resources permitting, everyone will be buried decently," says Cde Chinyani.

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