Noted human rights activist pursues studies in forensics at Mercyhurst

Human Rights Activists in Forensics


Zimbabwe is rife with tragedy; the human wreckage of three eras of political violence is widespread and the spirits are angry. No more so than Shari Eppel, whose anger has driven the human rights work of this 50-something psychologist for two decades.

Eppel has taken a one-year sabbatical from her post as executive director of the Solidarity Peace Trust, which assists victims of human rights abuses in their efforts to end the oppression, so that she may earn her master’s degree in forensic and biological anthropology at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa. Armed with the skill sets of this pioneering program, the distinguished human rights activist intends to return to her native Zimbabwe and resume a crusade that, at its heart, is the pursuit of healing.

She is a serious woman on a serious mission. She knows hers is a job that may never be done, but she does it for Edwell and for the tens of thousands of victims like him.

Edwell was 19 when soldiers nailed him to a tree and savagely beat him to death. Adding indignity on top of horror, they shoved his body in an ant-bear hole – a final resting place reserved for dogs – in a nearby schoolyard.

“The children run on his head every day,” his mother lamented to Eppel one afternoon. “How can he rest?”

Across her African homeland, especially in its remote villages, Eppel is privy to whispered stories of the wrath of ancestral spirits.

“In African culture, the spirits of the angry dead are an overpowering weight in people’s lives and there’s a fatalism linked to that,” she said. “If you don’t properly honor and bury your dead, it is believed that bad luck will befall you, your family and your community.”

For much of the past 20 years, Eppel has documented Zimbabwe’s political violence, most recently under the Robert Mugabe regime. She has done interviews, written journal articles and disseminated her findings to policymakers worldwide to sway public opinion on Zimbabwe.

“There is such a lack of accountability for all the bad things that have happened in Zimbabwe,” Eppel said. “We are dealing with dead, tortured and displaced people. There needs to be an end to the human rights violations and to the impunity.”

In her quest to right the wrongs, Eppel and her group have put themselves at risk, facing staff arrests and raids on their offices. One of her colleagues “disappeared” and has not been seen in a year. Fortunately, her children, Ben, Joe and Ruth, no longer live in Zimbabwe, although the man she calls her “life partner,” Paul Themba Nyathi, and describes as a “fearless activist,” remains behind. She worries, but not for herself.

“People are afraid to step up and lead for fear of reprisals,” Eppel said. “I am more angry than afraid. Being white protects me. I’m the only white person in our organization (of 17) and am less likely to be targeted. Still none of us has it in our blood to capitulate to the state.”

So, they go on, deftly tending to the emotional needs of the tortured while locating and chronicling histories of mass graves. Eppel instituted a program of exhumations and reburials in response to pleas like those of Edwell’s mother, but bouts of political violence frequently disrupted her efforts.

In her pursuit to perform scientifically accurate exhumations, she received training from the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, the foremost human rights organization in the world, and later met with one of its prominent international lecturers, Mercyhurst forensic anthropologist Steven Symes, Ph.D., who convinced her that Mercyhurst’s master’s degree program would further empower her efforts.

“The Argentineans told me that Mercyhurst’s program was the best, and they were right,” she said. “It’s been brilliantly helpful.”

As Zimbabwe now faces a new political era, with a possible change in government being more concordant with Eppel’s own mission, she decided it was time to retrain so that she would be ready to resume her work when obstacles became less dangerous.

Eppel’s Mercyhurst training focuses on scientific procedures for identifying graves and removing remains; analyzing bones to determine sex, height, age and ethnicity of skeletons; identifying signs of trauma and documenting evidence that may one day lead to securing justice for the victims and their families. As her mission moves from documentation to intervention to healing, she finds herself on a continuum where the world of the living and the dead ultimately intersects.

“Exhumation and reburials are part of empowering the people,” Eppel said. “The right to mourn your dead is a moral right. If we are to have any chance at all of bringing peace to the living, we have to bring peace to the dead.”
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