In nominating Eppel, Dr. Montgomery cited one example of the reburial work. Two young men were murdered and buried in the same grave in 1979. Their families, themselves victims of violence in both civil wars, had experienced much misfortune in recent years. The women had trouble marrying; this was attributed to the shameful way the murders and burial had taken place and to the belief that the young men's spirits were not at peace. The two families had had no contact with each other since the murders, and had talked to no one about their personal experiences. Through the help of Amani, they met for the first time, sharing their history of violence. Together they planned for the exhumation and reburial. Innocent civilians and communities were caught in the crossfire in the 1970s when rebel forces fought for independence from colonial rule — and again in the 1980s as the newly-independent Zimbabwe government sought to consolidate its power by annihilating competing rebel groups or sympathizers.
The Zimbabwe government has refused to acknowledge the widespread massacres or torture that took place during the 1980s campaign, going so far as denying death certificates for the deceased or issuing death certificates with a falsified cause of death. Political dissidents were blamed for any violence that occurred.
Shari Eppel served as primary researcher and author for "Breaking the Silence," a 1997 human rights report issued by the Catholic Commission of Justice and Peace and the Legal Resources Foundation. The report describes this brutal period, when the Zimbabwe government unleashed specially trained shock troops throughout the southwestern Ndebele-speaking ethnic minority area of Matabeleland to "combat malcontents." Whole villages were burned, the people rounded up and beaten, or shot. Homes were burned with people still inside. Hundreds simply "disappeared," never to be seen again and presumed killed. Victims' bodies were thrown into mine shafts, ant holes, or into mass graves that the victims were forced to dig before being shot. In other cases, victims' bodies were deliberately left out in the open to be scavenged and dispersed by animals. Families were threatened with death if they attempted to rebury their dead relatives or give them traditional funeral rites.
Although dissidents also committed offenses, Zimbabwe government forces were responsible for the vast majority of atrocities, according to human rights organizations.
After completing the report, Eppel felt a strong need to move from her role of documenting the human rights violations to helping communities recover from the devastation of two decades of violent conflict. "While the violent history of Matabeleland is still denied by the nation at large, its scars are everywhere," says Eppel. "Graves of every kind abound in the landscape. As one walks and talks with the living in rural villages, one becomes aware that the wounds of the cruelly murdered continue to fester in the hearts of the living, and that the countryside is indeed awash with the tears of the dead. If healing is to occur in Matabeleland, and if future ethnic violence is to be avoided in Zimbabwe, then the nation must take up the challenge to appease not only the living, but also their dead."
In January 1998, Eppel founded a Matabeleland chapter of Amani Trust. Amani — meaning "peace" in Swahili — had been offering rehabilitation support to torture survivors in the northern part of Zimbabwe. Eppel's Amani program is jointly funded by the German Catholic donor Misereor and the Research and Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims (RCT) in Denmark, one of the world's first treatment centers for torture survivors. The Amani Trust is part of the IRCT's regional network in sub-Sahara Africa. With only two clinical psychologists and four psychiatrists located in the city of Bulawayo —to serve a population of four million people in Matabeleland — training additional mental health workers has been a primary need. To date, Eppel and the Amani team have trained around 40 nurses based in outlying hospitals and clinics, thus providing a basic rural counseling and rehabilitation service that covers almost half of Zimbabwe.
Communities also asked Amani for help in dealing with the hundreds of unmarked graves, where the bodies of loved ones lay in the same disrespectful condition as when their murderers dumped them there. Lack of normal funeral rites — which play an important role in the grieving process in all human societies — caused families to remain in an emotional state of grief. Moreover, cultural beliefs in Matabeleland assign great importance to respectful treatment of the dead, and many people were unable to carry on with their lives until they felt the spirits of their loved ones were "at peace". Eppel's Amani team brought in forensics specialists from Argentina to train them, and began a pioneering program of exhumation, documentation, and reburial of Zimbabwe's dead, with the participation of their families and the entire community.
"The issue of reburial is very sensitive since the graves would serve as proof of the atrocities committed by the government," said Dr. Edith Montgomery, who nominated Eppel for the award. Dr. Montgomery is research director of a rehabilitation program (RCT) affiliated with Dr. Inge Genefke's IRCT program in Denmark. "Several times during the reburials, the Amani team was stopped by the police and threatened. Shari Eppel courageously dealt with the local police as well as the official political level." After the second police stoppage, and with a mass grave of six people lying open, the issue was brought before a government cabinet meeting, and the decision was made to allow the Amani team to continue with the reburials.
Returning More Than Bones
In nominating Eppel, Dr. Montgomery cited one example of the reburial work:
Two young men were murdered and buried in the same grave in 1979. Their families, themselves victims of violence in both civil wars, had experienced much misfortune in recent years. The women had trouble marrying; this was attributed to the shameful way the murders and burial had taken place and to the belief that the young men's spirits were not at peace. The two families had had no contact with each other since the murders, and had talked to no one about their personal experiences. Through the help of Amani, they met for the first time, sharing their history of violence. Together they planned for the exhumation and reburial.
The families were able to identify the two bodies to their own satisfaction, owing to the intact state of the clothing, which still retained its original color and shape. They were also called to witness when it became apparent that the two skeletons had been buried in handcuffs, as the families had alleged. "It is this process of verifying long-standing eye witness accounts, and giving the families a clear version of their family history in all its details that is as important as returning the bones for reburial," Eppel wrote in her report of the case. "We were returning more than bones — we were giving back to the community the truth about the past."
The exhumation work is "intense and devastating" in Eppel's words, but ultimately worth the effort because surviving families can then begin the process of healing.Since the reburial of these men, marriages have begun to take place — a step toward normalcy that the community attributed to the reburials and the cultural rituals that could now take place, Eppel reports.
For her own healing, Eppel turns to writing poetry. Her poems have been included in two anthologies, one published by Hodder and Staunton and one published by Penguin.
Regarding the Barbara Chester Award
The USD10,000 Barbara Chester Award gave me the opportunity to provide various items for my colleagues, for a torture victim, and for my children. The first items I bought were a set of the very earliest mobile phones for my colleagues, at a time when these were first "hitting the scene" in Zimbabwe. The mobile phones were very expensive by today's standards, and the size of large bricks, but allowed us to keep in touch with one another in the field. This greatly enhanced our security and efficiency.
The bulk of the money was spent to buy building materials for one of our most amazing tortured families. The patriarch of the family survived an assassination attempt in 2000. A few months later, agents of the state burned down his entire home -- his family including his wife and three children were in the house at the time. They had to fight their way out of the blaze, through yelling mobs trying to beat them, as the house collapsed. His 16-year old son was knocked unconscious as the family fled and the mobs poured fuel on him to burn to death. But he regained consciousness and pulled himself out just ahead of encroaching flames. The family’s two-year old daughter was whacked across the head while in her fleeing mother's arms, and she suffered deep trauma. She stopped talking and regressed in other ways. A few months after the fire, the mother developed a form of paralysis of her lower limbs most likely caused by stress. The patriarch himself was severely beaten, and unable to protect his family from the attacks. All the family members fled into hiding in different parts of the country, which further added to their stress, as they were apart from one another and unable to communicate; some members went to rural areas where there are no phones.
The patriarch ended up in my town, 200 kilometers from where he lived. I treated him for months for severe anxiety and depression. He would not travel around with anyone else, and I used to go to where he was hiding to collect him. We became good friends, and when I received the award, I used a large part of it to buy roofing timbers, roof sheeting and various other building supplies to restore the family home. I could think of no more deserving family at that time.
The remaining money from the award was put towards a seaside holiday for my family, at a time when we really needed the break from an intense situation in Zimbabwe.
The Silver Feather
The silver feather stands on my dressing table in my bedroom, and is the first thing and the last thing I see every day. It holds happy memories for me, of Floyd, of good times on Hopi, and so many times past. The miniature feather, which I wear on a band around my neck, has evoked many admiring comments over the years.
All in all, winning the award opened up new friendships and new experiences that remain precious. I anticipate meetings with old friends and ones yet to be met that will happily extend into the future as well, through my continued association with the Barbara Chester Award.