Shari Eppel, the Executive Director of Amani Trust, was born in Zimbabwe and has lived there her entire life. Amani Trust, based in Bulawayo Zimbabwe, was established in 1997 to deal with the many thousands of survivors of institutionalised violence around Zimbabwe, in particular, the civilian survivors of both the liberation war and, in the case of Matabeleland, the survivors of the 1980s atrocities in which over 20,000 people were killed.
Shari Eppel – Zimbabwe
Eppel has been involved with human rights work in the anti-apartheid movement since the late seventies and early eighties during her university days in South Africa. She belonged to the Detainees Parent Support Committee through the Psychology Department, where she used to offer psychological support to the parents of people in detention.
She was the key researcher of “Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace” a report commissioned by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and the Legal Resources Foundation in Zimbabwe which document the atrocities in Matabeleland by the 5th Brigade.
Shari Eppel is a 40 year old Zimbabwe psychologist and teacher who has performed groundbreaking work to bring healing to Zimbabwe communities and individuals scarred by massive atrocities inflicted during two civil wars. 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 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.
Shari Eppel says: “We’ve seen a lot of very crude torture in communities, using home-made instruments such as leather whips with nuts and bolts tied to the ends. This has been a new phenomenon since the elections. People are being whipped with chains or with barbed wire tied to wooden sticks. These are instruments of torture, designed for that purpose.”
She is married to John Eppel, a poet and also a human rights activist. They have three children. She got the Barbara Chester Award, given for work with survivors of torture.
The Zimbabwean of Oct. 7, 2005;
This is Zimbabwe in November 2005.