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Psychologist studies forensics at Mercyhurst to help native Zimbabwe

| Monday, March 18, 2013, 11:52 p.m.
Mike Wereschagin | Tribune-Review
Mercyhurst University forensic anthropology professor Steven A. Symes (left) and Shari Eppel examine the skeletal remains Eppel is studying in pursuit of her forensic anthropology degree. Eppel plans to return to her native Zimbabwe this summer to help exhume victims of civil war and government crackdowns.

In the darkness of Zimbabwe's abandoned mine shafts and unmarked graves, the bones hold true to their stories.

Half a world away, in a classroom at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Shari Eppel is learning to listen to them.

Eppel, 52, traveled to Erie from her native Zimbabwe to study forensic anthropology, the science of exhuming remains and determining what happened to them.

Her country faces an inflection point. Police on Sunday arrested the country's top human rights lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, and several political opponents of President Robert Mugabe, a day after an estimated 2 million people voted on a constitution that would curb Mugabe's power.

Mugabe, 89, faces reelection this summer.

As her country struggles to find its future, Eppel, a psychologist, believes it must confront the horrors of its past, including the scars of Mugabe's brutal crackdown in the early 1980s.

“You'll find husbands and wives who saw each other beaten who've never discussed it with each other. Because there's no reason. Why would you suddenly, 15 years later, say, ‘Oh by the way, 15 years ago when we were beaten, this is how I felt about it'?” Eppel said.

Zimbabwe has no forensic anthropologists to identify and record victims of Gukurahundi, the name Mugabe gave to the crackdown. Government troops killed 20,000 people, mostly civilians in Eppel's native Matabeleland, according to United Nations estimates.

Mass graves hide in plain sight, in shuttered mines and beneath schoolyards, where relatives buried their dead at gunpoint, Eppel said. In some cases, the Fifth Brigade, Mugabe's North Korean-trained troops, forced family members to desecrate fresh graves, she said.

In the decades since, survivors tried to bury their memories.

“They're so afraid, they're so ashamed, they're so humiliated by all the terrible things that happened to them during that time that they don't ever, ever talk about it,” Eppel said.

Exhuming remains offers a way to confront those terrifying days, she said. The process engages whole villages — a practical necessity, she said, in a region with 3 million people and four psychoanalysts.

Exhumations take place but many are indiscriminate, with bones haphazardly returned to families without scientific confirmation that they belonged to a missing relative nor documentation of how he or she ended up in a mass grave.

“People think that once you're dead, you can't say anything. But actually you can,” Eppel said.

In a Nebraska courtroom in early February, Eppel's Mercyhurst professor, Steven Symes, testified against John Oldson in his trial for the 1989 murder of Catherine Beard. The woman's bones showed marks from the knife that killed her. Based partly on Symes' testimony, the jury convicted Oldson, whom a judge will sentence in April.

“There she is, a village girl in Nebraska, saying, ‘I was stabbed in the back,' 23 years after the event and getting somebody locked up,” Eppel said.

The American Board of Forensic Anthropology lists only nine graduate forensic anthropology programs, including Mercyhurst's. Police departments frequently enlist the aid of its professors and graduate students when they find long-hidden remains, including remains found Feb. 17 near UPMC Passavant in Cranberry.

The program admits at most 10 graduate students a year, which nearly saturates the field's tiny job market, Symes said.

The school accepted Eppel with the hope of doing more than educating her, Symes said.

“She's also here to help our grad students understand some issues,” he said. Students who grew up in the United States rarely have firsthand knowledge of human rights abuses, he said. Eppel's stories show her classmates how scientific methods can offer justice along with answers.

“All we can teach them here is the science, but you have to have a passion to go with it,” Symes said.

Eppel plans to return this summer to Zimbabwe and an uncertain future.

“We're exhuming people the government murdered, and they don't particularly want us to do that,” Eppel said.

Mugabe has called the Gukurahundi “a moment of madness,” but human rights groups accuse his regime of continuing to abduct activists such as Paul Chizuze, a colleague of Eppel's whose February 2012 disappearance made headlines worldwide. Police on Sunday ignored a judge's order to release Mtetwa, the human rights lawyer, according to the group Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, where Mtetwa is a board member.

Eppel said she is learning to “see the healing power of bones, how anthropology does literally what therapy does figuratively.”

A properly conducted exhumation can help villagers to dig up the skeletons of their past, mourn the dead, bury them properly and move on, she said.

“The dead aren't really dead in Africa,” where people consider ancestors a link to God, Eppel said. Damage that link and “your access to God is damaged.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Mike Wereschagin is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or

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