The truth lies in their bones

2011-07-09 09:29

It’s weird to hear someone describe finding human skeletons as similar to ­unearthing the most beautiful treasure in the world.

But when that person’s life ­revolves around finding human ­remains that mean the world to the living and to a country’s history, it makes perfect sense.

We are seated at a round table in a cramped office at the National Prosecuting Authority in Silverton, Pretoria, with Tshiamo Moela and Madeleine Fullard of the Missing Persons Task Team (MPTT).

On the table is a large rectangular book – a mortuary register whose faded pages attest to its age.

Each column is filled with handwritten notes made in blue ink bearing testimony to those who exited this world during that period.

A thick but smaller, brown hardcover book also rests on the table. On its pages are black and white identity photographs of men and women of all races.

There is a haunting innocence about the look in some of the eyes, particularly the ones who look as if they were just out of their teens when the pictures were taken.

As I page through the book, I spot a photograph of Onkgopotse Tiro, the student leader whose life came to a bloody end when a parcel bomb sent by apartheid security forces exploded in his hands in Botswana in 1974.

My colleague, Eugene Arries, spots a picture of Frene Ginwala – the former Speaker of Parliament. It’s not a particularly clear photograph, but there she is, looking ­almost regal in a sari.

There are almost 6 000 photographs in the album, all neatly numbered underneath. It was compiled by the apartheid ­police to help them in their search, arrest and murder of political ­activists between 1960 and 1990.

Apartheid’s racial segregation permeated even these entries. An index list carrying ­numbers linked to the album ­identifies them by race. Code 1 means a white person, code 2 Asian, code 3 coloured and code 4 African.

There is also a file number which shows when the police registered an individual as a threat to state ­security or if that person went into exile.

Some of the names have an ­asterisk next to them, meaning the person was no longer considered a threat because they had died, been captured and turned askari, or had been cleared.

Fullard speaks animatedly about her work, often pausing to open files on her laptop containing gory pictures of dead bodies reduced to ash heaps. Some have their heads and arms blown away and others are photographed with bloodied faces, eyes open wide in deathly surprise, their backs and stomachs riddled with bullet wounds.

They are victims – men and women who died at the hands of the police during South Africa’s torturous march to freedom which claimed more than 25 000 lives ­between 1960 and 1994.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) estimated that 16 000 of these people died in political violence between different political groups, while others were killed by the police during protest marches such as the 1976 Soweto uprising.

An estimated 100 people were reportedly kidnapped, tortured and killed by the security police during the same period.

Fullard explains: “In the popular imagination, people think the ­security police were detaining and abducting people left, right and centre. People tend to imagine that there were thousands of people that were kidnapped by the security police. It’s actually not a big ­feature of South Africa’s political repression.”

The TRC estimated that at least 488 people disappeared in the country during the same period, while 1 500 others are believed to have died or disappeared in exile.

Added to that is the list of 140 people who were hanged for political reasons between 1960 and 1989 – they were buried as paupers because their bodies were considered state property and their ­families never knew of their final resting places.

Since they began work in 2005, the task team has located and ­exhumed the remains of 69 activists, the latest being that of Xolile “Valdez” Sam, an Umkhonto we Sizwe special operations commander who was killed in November 1988 in Vosloorus in a joint operation by Vlakplaas members led by Colonel Eugene de Kock, and the Germiston and Witbank ­security police. The exhumation took place at Vosloorus cemetery on June 26 this year.

Fullard says: “We will never be able to solve all the cases. In some cases where people were killed and secretly buried, only the perpetrators know where that person is buried. We are not going to be able to work it out. There are cases where the paper trail just doesn’t exist any longer.”

It’s an arduous task, says Moela, a senior investigator in the task team.

In most cases, autopsy reports have been destroyed and mortuary registers, grave markings and cemetery maps have disappeared.

Moela says: “In some ­cemeteries, it is even impossible to determine areas where people were buried because the surface is just flat. That is why a paper trail is critical.”

This means that investigators spend hours going through police records, dockets, photographs, whatever is left of cemetery maps and also rely on the knowledge of government employees who worked in the cemeteries.

There is also the difficult task of trying to squeeze out every bit of ­information about the people they are looking for from surviving ­relatives.

And they go through the TRC ­reports scanning for information on which activist was killed, where and when, as a way of trying to ­establish a possible burial location.

The team also includes ­forensic anthropologists who help with identifying the remains through DNA analysis, and work with a team of ­experts from Argentina who are ­involved in a similar project to track down the remains of victims of that country’s military regime.

But it doesn’t make the task team’s job any easier. Moela says: “For example, the Northern Transvaal security branch would take people, interrogate them on farms, kill them and then dump them in Bophuthatswana.

“Now that ­becomes difficult to link because you are moving from one area of ­administration to ­another.

“Different undertakers were ­given contracts to bury paupers and each had their own methods.”

Fullard explains that, for ­instance, when they were searching for Looksmart Ngudle’s burial place in Mamelodi cemetery, they came across cases where there were three people buried as ­paupers in one grave.

Ngudle was one of the first ­political activists to die in ­detention in 1963. The team ­exhumed his ­remains in 2007.

“There was no soil thrown ­between the coffins. The coffins had rotted away and the bones are now piled together.

That is when we had to call the ­experts to carefully remove the bones and take them for testing,” says ­Fullard.

But, like everything related to death, there is an emotional price that comes with the job.

While the constant interaction with human remains doesn’t ­bother him much, Moela says it is the stories of those who were hanged by the apartheid regime, most of them young, that have had a serious impact on him.

“There were so many wasted lives. You look at the trial transcripts and you find that in some cases people were hanged on the basis of common purpose. There are cases where the state president could have granted clemency but did not.

“You come to realise that the death sentence was quite problematic because it was used as a tool of oppression.

“In some cases, it took only three months for ­someone to be arrested, tried and hanged,” he says.

Fullard says the case of the ­Pebco Three – Sipho Hashe, Qaqawuli Godolozi and Champion Galela – who disappeared on 8 May 1985, and that of student activist Siphiwo Mthimkhulu, shook her badly.

In August 2007, the team went to the banks of the Fish River to do an excavation at the site where security police officers told th

e TRC they had killed the activists, burnt their bodies and thrown their remains into the river. On the third day of digging, they came across an assortment of bones, one of which turned out to be a human ­finger bone.

“That was devastating because I had marched as a student activist in the 80s regarding the disappearance of the activists. I remembered a poster of Siphiwo Mthimkhulu.

“We later drained about 20 000 litres of raw sewage from a septic tank and found human remains which turned to be those of the Pebco Three. I still get very ­emotional when I talk about that case,” says Fullard.

But the task of helping families find closure for their loved ones’ fate and putting together some of the missing pieces in South ­Africa’s puzzling history must ­continue – regardless of the ­emotional toll it takes on those ­responsible for this task.

Fullard says: “Finding remains is like finding the most beautiful treasure in the world; the most ­sacred, precious thing – another human being.

“Seeing skeletons for the first time was shocking and uncomfortable. But, of course, you become comfortable. I’m very comfortable with them now and we are now fond of them.

“They are our babies that we find and look after. They become like a real person because you’ve got to know their history and we become quite sad when we have to hand them over for reburial.”

Moela says it is crucial that ­efforts are made to speed up the process, particularly that of finding the remains of those who died and were buried in exile, because, as the days pass, people’s ­memories fade and death continues to claim the older generation, whose knowledge is crucial to any investigation.

As we leave the office, I spot a copy of a thick paperback titled Lost Lives. It documents the ­stories of each of the thousands of men, women and children who died during the conflict in ­Northern Ireland.

“It would be good to have ­something like this for our ­country,” says Fullard.

But for now, there are still many more bones to be found...

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