Forensic specialists in South Africa have exhumed two bodies believed to be those of anti-apartheid fighters killed by security forces 17 years ago and buried in unmarked graves. Investigators hope to positively identify the remains and possibly find clues to who killed them. These are the first of more than 20 exhumations expected over the next several weeks, as authorities try to close some of the cases that were left open by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The first bone uncovered is a skull. It is partly caved-in on the right side. A forensic anthropologist gently uses a paintbrush to sweep dirt away, revealing more and more of the dead man's remains. She uncovers his jaw, his collarbone, a few ribs. Slowly, his right arm emerges from the earth, apparently broken in several places.
The anthropologist is kneeling at the bottom of a two-meter-deep hole in the ground, in a cemetery on the side of a lush green hill about 40 kilometers outside Pietermaritzburg. Another woman kneels in an identical hole next to her. They focus intently on their work, occasionally hauling buckets of earth up to waiting helpers.
A third forensic specialist, Anahi Ginate, explains that the bones will be removed one by one and then transported to a lab in Durban for analysis. There they will use dental and medical records as well as DNA tests to determine who was buried in these two unmarked graves 17 years ago, and how they died.
"What we are doing is just to dig, dig up these remains," he explained. "We already talked to the family that this is very slow work, that they must not expect to have the result right now, so they should wait till we have the analysis done."
The forensic anthropologists are from Argentina, a country whose own painful history has led to a grim expertise in this kind of work, identifying the remains of victims of political violence.
A team of South African investigators from the national prosecutor's office has determined that these unmarked graves on a hillside in rural KwaZulu-Natal probably hold the remains of Oscar "Shakes" Maleka and Jabulani Ndaba, two anti-apartheid fighters from the African National Congress who were killed by security forces in 1988.
If the remains are confirmed to be theirs, Margaret Joe Ndaba feels it will finally close a painful chapter in her family history.
"I am sad because it's my brother, but I'm happy because I know he's here, rather than not knowing where is he," she said.
Both men went into exile after the student uprisings of 1976 and joined uMkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC. They were based in Lusaka before being sent back into South Africa in 1988. It was their last mission. Investigators say one man was killed by a grenade blast, and the other was shot.
Margaret Joe Ndaba says the family knew almost nothing about her brother's life in the struggle after he left home.
"We knew that Jabulani is out of the country," she said. "He used to just come, pop up any time. Just come, 'I'm not staying, I'm going.' You see?... And after '88, he never came back. And everyone was back. Everyone that we know was back. Somebody said Jabulani died. That's why I went to the Truth Commission. If he died, where are we going to see him? We must know where he is."
But the Truth and Reconciliation Commission could give her very few answers.
National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Makhosini Nkosi explains what happened to many of the anti-apartheid fighters who disappeared in those days.
"You see, at that time the security police would not really care who these people were, they would just bury them as unidentified paupers," he said. "You then get information filtering through to the ANC leadership in exile that so-and-so was murdered in an operation where, and you take it from there."
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission left 477 cases unresolved. That means they did not have enough information at the time to locate the bodies of the missing or determine exactly what had happened to them.
A special prosecutors unit reopened those cases last year on the orders of the president, and they believe they have located the remains of 22 of those victims, most of them buried in unmarked graves around the country. The remains believed to be those of Mr. Ndaba and Mr. Maleka are the first to be exhumed, but others are expected to follow over the next few weeks.
KwaZulu-Natal provincial governor S'bu Ndebele says the people of the region will only be able to move forward when they have been able to finally close the door on the past.
"By exhuming the remains of these comrades, we honor them and recognize the supreme sacrifices they made in order for us to be free," he said. "Their reburial with fitting burial rights will restore to these comrades the human dignity which they were callously denied by their murderers when they buried them in unmarked graves."
Although a main goal of the exhumations is to bring closure to the victims' families, South Africa's top prosecutor, Vusi Pikoli, says newly uncovered forensic evidence could be used to prosecute people who failed to apply for amnesty during the Truth Commission.
"Because also we want to close this chapter of our history in South Africa," he said. "We don't want to have this as an ongoing thing. But also we need to balance that with the commission of criminal offenses, as well as the position of the victims and their families. People should not easily get away with murder."
But the families are divided over whether they even want to know who killed them. Margaret Joe Ndaba says no.
"I don't wish to know who killed him. I don't wish to know," she said. "What I'm glad about is my brother is going to be buried like every other person."
But Oscar Maleka's mother disagrees. Joyce Sekoko Maleka came all the way from Johannesburg to witness the exhumation, and she wants the men who killed her son to be punished.
"Yes we want to know, we want to know.," she said. "They are people, they are not dogs. You know, a dog, you can just kill it. You don't know the owner. You can kill it. But a person, you know is somebody's child. He can be naughty, but you must always remember, that's somebody's child."
Forensic tests on the skeletons will take days, if not weeks to complete. Only when they are done will the families know for sure whether they have finally located the remains of their loved ones.