The Sunday Mail
Rudo Mandiro and Theseus Shambare
A year after burying his 18-month-old daughter, Mr George Chigwida of Epworth decided to pay homage to his departed “angel” by visiting her grave.
However, on arriving at the burial site, he got the shock of his life. The grave was no longer there.
While this discovery left him in utter bewilderment, such an unthinkable experience is now commonplace at Zinyengere Cemetery in the dormitory town of Epworth.
The cemetery has been invaded by sand poachers, who have wantonly desecrated several graves.
So daring are the sand poachers that in some instances, after stripping a grave, they collect human remains and throw them into the nearby Jacha stream.
In an interview with The Sunday Mail Society, Mr Chigwida said he is traumatised that some people can go to such lengths to disrespect the dead.
“I could not believe my eyes when I first saw that my daughter’s grave had disappeared. I wondered if I had forgotten her burial site. However, after moving around the graveyard, I discovered that a number of other graves had also been violated. I had plans to erect a tombstone for my daughter, but I cannot do that anymore.”
Although he is resigned to the reality that he may never see his daughter’s coffin again, he has engaged other residents to drive out the sand poachers, while urging the Epworth Local Board to protect the graveyard.
“The local board has failed us. I am angry that they cannot protect the cemetery. I will continue to urge them to protect this place.”
When The Sunday Mail Society crew visited the graveyard, there was a cat and mouse fight between residents and suspected sand poachers.
Some of the sand poachers were loading bricks into a truck, adjacent to the burial site, but hastily left as the concerned residents tried to stop them from engaging in their illegal activities.
The bricks had been made from soil dug out of the cemetery.
The sand poachers are said to be led by a “mastermind”, only known as Christopher.
Mr Isaac Chirimba, a senior resident of Epworth, said he is disgusted by the lack of respect for the dead as he once saw human remains scattered on some graves.
“These youths are very disrespectful. What they are doing is taboo. Invading a graveyard to earn a few dollars is unacceptable in our society.
“Last month, we went to the cemetery to bury a relative and discovered that some of the graves were missing, much to our surprise. We were shocked when we found a skull and bones scattered all over the place,” he said.
Gogo Hilda Sithole, a long-time resident of Epworth, said locals once pooled resources to erect a perimeter wall at the cemetery, but sand poachers vandalised it and sold the bricks.
“Epworth is my home. I have been here with my family since 1960. We used to bury children in this place you now see as plain ground. There is nothing to show that there were graves there.
“This is all the work of sand poachers, who will stop at nothing to get what they want,” said Gogo Sithole, pointing at pits dug by immoral sand poachers.
Combined Epworth Original Residents Development Trust chairman, Mr Joel Mupfudza, called on the authorities to do more to protect the graveyard.
“What is distressing is that we are not getting action from the law enforcement agencies. We implore the Environmental Management Agency to do more.
“We have approached the Epworth police and they said they don’t have the manpower to deal with the sand poachers, who are violent. The local council has ignored what is going on; it is not taking any action.”
Contacted for a comment, Epworth Local Board secretary Dr Wilton Mhanda said: “Yes, there are sand poachers, but the situation is being exaggerated. We usually conduct raids and culprits are brought to book.”
Epworth Member of Parliament, Cde Zalerah Makari, said some councillors in the area are part of the illegal activities because they are land barons.
“I have tried to engage them, but they seem to turn a deaf ear to my plea. It is the council’s mandate to safeguard such infrastructure. I even suggested to them to set up a council police base in conjunction with the ZRP (Zimbabwe Republic Police).
“I have since talked to the Combined Epworth Original Residents Development Trust leadership, with whom we’ll set a date for re-engagement with the local authority,” she said.
Clerics who often visit the graveyard to preside over burial ceremonies are also concerned. Methodist Church in Zimbabwe superintendent for Epworth, Reverend Josias Mudenda, said: “I have gone to the graveyard many times to bury fellow church members, only to see what is happening there. It is an eyesore.
The Bible even says graveyards are sacred places. In the Bible, Nehemiah said he could not rest while the place of his fathers’ graves lies waste and the gates are consumed by fire, showing the respect he had for the dead. I believe that graves should be walled and gated. The local authority needs to work with the community to protect this site.”
ZRP community liaison officer for Epworth, Sergeant Maliana Davis, said the station is yet to receive communication from the council on any cemetery invasion by sand poachers.
“As Epworth ZRP, we are committed to duty. The last time council engaged us was, when some people were constructing houses in the cemetery. We worked together well on the matter,” she said.