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Last Updated: Friday, 13 January 2006, 00:08 GMT
Unearthing the past in Namibia
By Peter Biles
BBC Southern Africa correspondent, Eenhana, northern Namibia

For more than 15 years, the sands of northern Namibia have hidden many of the victims of this country's troubled past.

A bulldozer at a Namibian construction site where a mass grave was found
Mechanical diggers have uncovered hundreds of bones

In the last few months however, the authorities have been discovering unidentified graves that date back to the struggle for independence from South Africa during the apartheid era.

It is now thought that hundreds of bodies were buried across northern Namibia at the height of the conflict in the 1980s.

In November, construction teams working on a new sewage processing plant at Eenhana, close to a former South African military base, stumbled across a mass grave.

Mechanical diggers uncovered hundreds of bones.


The construction project was suspended briefly, while police were called in.

Small grave
Smaller graves are being reported all over the area

A short while later, Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba visited the site and led a tribute to those who were buried at Eenhana.

It is believed the bodies were those of Swapo guerrillas killed in the last intense round of fighting with the South African forces in April 1989 - a period that came to be known in Namibia as "The Nine Day War".

For years, apartheid South Africa had been battling what it saw as a communist onslaught.

Tens of thousands of troops - black and white - were involved in the military occupation of northern Namibia.

The bones found in the mass grave at Eenhana have now been taken away for examination and the site filled in. The bulldozers have been levelling the ground, enabling the construction project to continue.

Other sites

However, when news of the find spread, people were urged to come forward with information about other burial sites.

Many contain individual graves known only to local communities, although the identities of those buried remains a mystery.

About 10km from Eenhana, Detective Sergeant Leo Jeremia of the Namibian Police inspects one such site.

Hidden in the bush, within a few metres of the tarred road, there are two graves.

Sgt Jeremia confirms that this area too was once the scene of fighting between the South African Defence Force and Swapo insurgents.

He says three fighters were killed sometime in the 1980s, their bodies were left lying here and later buried by local residents.

Forensic teams from Windhoek are expected to carry out a proper exhumation, but for now, the graves are marked only by mounds of sand and a cordon of police tape.


The Director of the National Forensic Science Institute, Dr Paul Ludik, believes that there are graves scattered right across this border region.

South African troops, 1989
South African troops fought Swapo fighters in Namibia until 1990

"There's no specific pattern", he says.

"This was not done in an organised way. It's random".

He doubts whether all the bodies can be identified so many years later, as the cost of DNA analysis is prohibitively expensive.

The Namibian government has ruled out the establishment of a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Phil Ya Nangoloh of the National Society for Human Rights in Namibia says this is because Swapo - the former liberation movement and now Namibia's ruling party - was also guilty of human rights abuses.

"They were involved in the conflict, and also committed atrocities, not just in Namibia, but in their camps in Angola, Zambia and Tanzania. Swapo doesn't want a truth commission, otherwise it too will be exposed".

The harsh terrain where the South Africans fought their brutal and often covert counter-insurgency war in the 1970s and 1980s is finally giving up its secrets.

In the remote villages where there was once a state of fear in the midst of the South African military occupation, people are revealing what they know about the killings.

However, there are more graves to be found before the memories can be laid to rest.

Country profile: Namibia
17 Sep 05 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Namibia
03 Sep 05 |  Country profiles

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