In graves, S. African families seek answers

July 26, 2005|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WINTERVELD, South Africa - The gravedigger worked rhythmically under a bright sun, flinging the dirt up and to his right, hoping to unearth new secrets from South Africa's apartheid past.

"If it's a complete skeleton, we know it's not our guy. We're looking for body parts," said Madeleine Fullard, looking on at the cemetery 50 miles north of Johannesburg.

Fullard supervises a government task force seeking the remains of hundreds of missing anti-apartheid fighters believed to be dead, many of them burned or the victims of bombings carried out by police as late as the 1980s.

The exhumations are the result of an order from President Thabo Mbeki to keep searching for the vanished, including his son, Kwanda, whose activities and fate remain largely unknown. One of the starting points is the list of 477 people labeled "missing" or "disappeared" in 2003 when the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission ended seven years of work.

The commission used offers of amnesty to entice perpetrators of political violence to explain how thousands died in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Police committed most of the violence, though members of the African National Congress - now the ruling political party - executed black informants.

Some families still know only that a son walked out the door 25 years ago and never came home. Others know a loved one was killed and who did it and how, but want a body to bury.

"South Africa has moved on," said Fanie du Toit of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. "It was important to put a full stop after the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] and say this phase of our history is now closed, we are developing a new focal point: alleviation of poverty and so on."

Since the current round of exhumations began in March, 17 sets of remains have been found; five were given to families. The government stresses that some bodies will never be found.

"There were people murdered and fed to crocodiles," said Makhosini Nkosi, spokesman for the National Prosecuting Authority. "Others were blown to pieces. Others were burned to ashes."

Tracking down remains

The exhumations Fullard oversaw this month in Winterveld were aimed at finding eight ANC members killed in the late 1980s, some for refusing to be police informants. Police exploded seven of the bodies to make it appear the men had accidentally blown themselves up; the eighth was burned.

Fullard's task force determined an undertaker buried remains of four of the eight on Sept. 22, 1987, at Winterveld. Pinpointing burial sites is hard because undertakers sometimes put multiple bodies in a grave, and thieves have stolen many grave-number markers.

In one coffin, leg fragments believed to be from the four victims were found; also found were shoes and socks matching those observed in the cursory postmortem exam by a doctor after the four died in 1987.

Assisting Fullard's team were four Argentine forensic anthropologists whose expertise dates to the aftermath of their country's "Dirty War," in which 11,000 Argentines disappeared from 1976 to 1982. The search is confined to South Africa but could expand to countries such as Angola where many ANC members died in exile, Fullard said.

Exhumed remains are compared with what is known about how a person died and postmortem exams to see whether the injuries are consistent. Some families are also counting on DNA testing, including the relatives of Caswell Khumalo.

His family knows he was killed by police in 1989. Eight perpetrators confessed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and in 2001 were granted amnesty.

Khumalo, age 20 when he was killed, had links to the ANC's military arm, Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation"), or MK. A police informant posing as an MK operative gained the trust of Khumalo and others by supplying them with guns, grenades and mines.

When the young men pressed the infiltrator to select government targets for sabotage, according to the amnesty report, police decided they had to kill Khumalo and two comrades.

Families' sorrow

Police doctored the mines to detonate in an apparent accident. One of the three was "blown to shreds," the amnesty report said; Khumalo and the third man were shot, taken to a remote spot and "burnt with petrol and oil in order to destroy their identities."

Khumalo's family did not learn of his death until 1996. Even after the buried remains were found near a road west of Pretoria, DNA testing did not conclusively identify any as Khumalo's. The task force's Fullard said new testing may finally bring confirmation.

Khumalo's 35-year-old brother Dumisane has immersed himself in the plight of families like his. He seeks out other families for the South African Disappearance Project at the nonprofit Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

That is how he met Lennox and Sarah Xhola in Soweto. Their son, Duke Ellington Xhola, left home Nov. 5, 1979, and never returned.

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