Forensic tests and DNA analysis of the remains won’t be carried out, said Saviour Kasukuwere, the government minister of black empowerment. Instead, traditional African religious figures will perform rites to invoke spirits that will identify the dead, he said.
Mr. Kasukuwere said the Chibondo remains were discovered in 2008 by a gold panner who crawled into the shaft. But spirits of war dead had long “possessed” villagers and children in the district, he said.
“The spirits have refused to lie still. They want the world to see what Smith did to our people. These spirits will show the way it’s to be done,” he said, referring to Ian Smith, the last white prime minister of the former colony of Rhodesia. “This is the extent of atrocities committed by the Smith regime. They loot our resources and they close up the mine with our bodies.”
The prime minister's party has criticized the exhumations for stoking hatred at a time the nation still seeks healing not only from the pre-independence war but also from political violence that has left hundreds dead over the past decade and tens of thousands of documented cases of torture and abduction.
After independence an estimated 20,000 civilians were killed by Mr. Mugabe’s soldiers when they crushed an armed uprising in the western Matabeleland province. Many of those victims still lie in unmarked mass graves in the arid bush.
In a sweeping crackdown ahead of elections proposed this year, police and security officials have banned rallies of Mr. Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, arrested its lawmakers on what the party describes as trumped up charges and have hounded human rights activists.
Mr. Tsvangiria’s party has called for scientific research and “informed debate and reflection” on all violence that included killings of its supporters surrounding disputed elections in 2008.
The party stopped short of alleging that the corpses at Chibondo could include its supporters who have disappeared and remain unaccounted for in years of political and economic turmoil.
Maryna Steyn, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, said human remains should not retain a strong stench after 30 years.
“Usually, when we have remains that are lying around for more than a few years, the bones are no longer odorous,” she said.
Steve Naidoo, a pathologist at South Africa’s University of KwaZulu-Natal, said it “seemed strange” that bodies from three decades ago would still have some skin.
“Bearing in mind that the bodies are exposed to an open environment, albeit in a mine shaft, scavengers can access them quite easily. In 30 years, one would expect complete and advanced skeletonization,” he said.
But Shari Eppel, a Zimbabwean activist of the Solidarity Peace Trust, said in the group’s latest Zimbabwe bulletin that the presence of soft tissues “is not necessarily an indicator that these bones entered the grave more recently, although it could be.”
A process of mummification can occur when bodies are piled on top of each other in large numbers and to all but the most expert eye “mummified flesh will look the same as rotting soft tissues from a more recent era,” Ms. Eppel said.